Clippers at Dallas Preview: Can Hardaway Serve as The Mavs' 'Third Star'?

Steven Kilpatrick

Things change fast in the NBA. Just a week ago, if Tim Hardaway, Jr. was in the game, a wash of Tweets would let you know it. Fans and media would repeat the same question: "Why is Tim Hardaway Jr. in the game instead of (insert your favorite bench member here)?''

Coach Rick Carlisle has in recent days answered that question. And Hardaway himself has answered the call.

“One of the goals is to maintain it and continue to take the pressure off of (Kristaps Porzingis) and Luka (Doncic),” said Hardaway after scoring 31 points in Dallas' 137-123 stunner on Sunday at Houston. “Whatever I have to do I’m going to continue to do it.''

What Hardaway has always been able to do is score. But suddenly, he's a Rick Button-Push in a way that has us considering him not only as a "starter,'' but maybe as somebody with "star quality.''

A "third star''? That would push him up to the plateau just below Conference Player of the Week Luka Doncic and just below Kristaps Porzingis. But right now? It's working.

On Friday after the win over the Cavs, Carlisle said something about "giving consideration'' to THJ as a starter.

It worked again Sunday as he saved his best game of the season for the matchup against Houston. with the 31 points on 10-of-18 shooting, 6-of-7 from the line, four rebounds, five assists, two steals and only a single turnover.

If this is the Tim Hardaway Jr. you get as a starter, the Mavs might’ve found their third option - not "star,'' maybe, but "option'' - a little sooner and more easily than we expected.

“He was great again,” Carlisle said. “He’s playing great at both ends of the floor, and a great floor game. He’s an underrated passer and he’s a connector out there. I really like what he’s doing.”

The Mavs didn't "like what he was doing'' a bit earlier in this season. Over the first 13 games of the year, Hardaway Jr. was making 3.5 of his 10.1 field-goal attempts (34 percent) and he was only hitting 29.5 percent of his threes. The rest of his game wasn’t helping a lot either. In 22 minutes per game he had 1.5 assists per game, 0.1 steals, 2.2 rebounds and he was only hitting 73 percent of his free throws.

But then, in a bit of counterintuitive thinking fueled in part by Seth Curry's illness, Rick last week plugged him into the starting lineup.

In his three games as a starter Hardaway Jr. looks like a new man. He’s got 67 points, 13 assists, five rebounds, and only two turnovers. He’s also hit 10 of his 12 free-throw attempts and made 22-of-33 shots from the field.

Little wonder that on Monday, Rick made an announcement of sorts.

"Hardaway,'' he said, "is a starter.''

Hardaway, a "throw-in'' in last year's Porzingis trade, has always been able to score - to folks in some circles, via being a "volume shooter.'' And maybe this is more about him being a "hot hand'' - something the 11-5 Mavs could use tonight against the 12-5 Clippers, a powerhouse with some nice "third-star'' candidates - than it is something that is 82-game sustainable.

But right now? Tim Hardaway Jr. as a starter is equaling Tim Hardaway Jr. as a "standout.''


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