Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle recalls vividly reaching out to Tim Hardaway Jr. early in the season to ask him about coming off the bench. Hardaway started in Dallas' first 19 games, and prior to this year was a regular starter in over 83 percent of the Mavericks games since being traded there in 2019. But Dallas was in the midst of a six-game losing streak, staring at an 8-12 record to start the season. Something needed to change, and Carlisle wanted to shake things up.
"I called him one night when I found out Maxi [Kleber] was going to be a go for the next game the next day," Carlisle said. "I think it was the second game in January we played at home against Golden State, and I said 'Tim, Maxi is going to be back tomorrow,' and he goes, 'Coach you don't even need to ask. I'm fine coming off the bench. We need to get this thing going. Whatever is needed by this team is what I'm going to do.'"
Some players may scoff at the idea of coming off the bench, but that was never a problem the Mavericks had to worry about with Hardaway. He saw the bigger picture of what they were trying to accomplish, and understood that it may be what's best for Dallas.
"I mean, I think it would've been selfish of me if I was just talking to myself about 'no I'ma do this, I'ma do that, I don't want to come off the bench,'" Hardaway told CBS Sports. "But at the end of the day, you can only control what you can control out there on the floor, and that's how you perform. When coach came to me, it was more so me just making sure that he didn't have to stress as much with trying to come and ask me. I was just like, 'look I'll do it, whatever the team needs at this point. I'm cool with it, let's just get this thing going.' And I guess that made a lot of things easier moving forward, not only with the coaching staff but also with the players."
Although Hardaway was no longer a regular starter, it didn't significantly impact his production. He was scoring fewer points, but his efficiency remained relatively the same.
|Hardaway Role||Games Played||Minutes per game||PPG||FG%||FG3%|
As a result, Hardaway's experiencing perhaps his most successful season with the Mavericks since being an extra piece in that blockbuster deal that brought him and Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas. He's averaging 16.6 points, his highest total since being traded to Dallas, and shooting an impressive 39.1 percent from long range. He's the Mavericks' third-leading scorer, but he's doing so while coming off the bench in over 55 percent of Dallas' games.
Hardaway's willingness to embrace whatever role he needs to fill is what Carlisle says turned the season around for the Mavericks. It's not that moving Hardaway to the bench was the missing piece for Dallas to be successful, but having a player who can thrive in any role you put them in is like hitting the jackpot. Hardaway's a high-volume shooter, and he's been known to be a bit streaky over his career, but whether he's coming off the bench or starting, he's going to put points on the board.
His scoring has made him an essential piece to Dallas' success over this compacted season, something that even Clippers coach Tyronn Lue recognizes ahead of the two teams meeting in the first round of the playoffs on Saturday.
"We know Porzingis, and we know Luka's going to score the basketball," Lue said Tuesday. "It's hard to stop great players. But Tim Hardaway, he's been unbelievable ever since he's been in Dallas. Rick Carlisle's done a great job with him. He's playing at a high level right now. I think he's their X-factor."
Lue isn't wrong. Hardaway has come up huge on multiple occasions for the Mavericks this season, and what's been most impressive is his efficiency has been the best of his career. He's shooting a career-high 44.7 percent from the field, with an effective field goal percentage of 56.5 percent, also a career best. He's taking fewer bad shots, and has bumped up his two-point percentage from 48.6 percent last season to 52.5 percent this year.
Hardaway doesn't change up his aggressiveness or mindset whether he's starting or coming off the bench, but he's been knocking down more shots in a variety of ways this year, most notably when he's open.
2-4 feet (tight)
4-6 feet (open)
6+ feet (wide open)
On a team with a creative facilitator like Doncic, it's imperative for Hardaway to knock down open shots when he's given a no-look, behind-the-back pass from the team's third-year superstar. Luckily, he's delivering on all those highlight-level passes Doncic -- and reserve guard Jalen Brunson -- are serving up.
"For myself, I know Luka's gonna have the ball in his hands, and K.P. is going to have the ball in his hands the majority of the time, so going into the starting lineup you just have to pick and choose your spots wisely where you can impact the game," Hardaway told CBS Sports. "On offense, running out getting some fast-break points, making sure you knock down your wide-open shots when the ball is rotated to you, and most importantly just always having that aggressive mindset throughout the whole entire game. I think just keeping it that way and keeping your mind and your spirit towards those things definitely will help out whether you are starting or coming off the bench."
Keeping that same energy when he's starting or checking in off the bench would explain the hot shooting streak Hardaway ended the regular season on. In the Mavericks' last 12 games of the season, Hardaway started in nine of them where he averaged 22.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and shot 52.2 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from deep. He also put up a career-high 42 points in a win over the Detroit Pistons, while also tying the franchise record for most made 3s in a single game (10) in a 36-point outing against the Miami Heat.
If it looked like every time Hardaway shot the ball it was going in, well then you share the same sentiment as the nine-year guard, because that's how he felt every time the ball left his hands. But then again, knocking down shots at that rate is nothing new for Hardaway, who was taking NBA 3-pointers when he was in elementary school. Growing up with a father who played in the NBA -- and who also had a penchant for sinking deep shots -- he and Tim Hardaway Sr. would always see who could go around the world the fastest with consecutively made jump shots in their backyard. Fast forward to today, and Hardaway's now become one of the most important players for the Mavericks because of that shooting.
Heading into a postseason matchup with the Clippers, he'll try to continue leaving his fingerprints on the game like he has so often this season with his scoring. While it remains to be seen if he'll start or come off the bench for Dallas, this season has shown that it really doesn't matter what role Hardaway's in. He's still going to get buckets.