Tim Hardaway Jr. Brings A Necessary Calm To The Surprising Mavericks

TORONTO — Tim Hardaway Jr. comes loose in the locker room. He sits where he can see both doors in — the one from the arena and the one from the showers — and with every teammate that trickles out of the steam, it’s like a hand has swiped a spot clear on a fogged mirror and he sees another contributing factor to the Mavericks’ swamping in the landslide, 30-point record comeback unleashed by the Raptors, and another string of curses erupts from that clarity.

This is the valve of competition opening. The expectation on court is to be sublime, for muscles to do what is asked exactly when. If there’s no release, then where does energy required in that type of containment go?

When it’s time to parcel out the game’s missteps, Hardaway’s containment returns. “We didn’t attack it like we should have,” he said of the Mavs response to the Raptors full press. He has a shooter’s inclination when it comes to folding in the atmospheric elements of a game, nuance like the air in the arena, “When the crowd is getting into it you can feel the court starting to shake a little bit. It gets intense.”

Hardaway is the same recalling the game’s intensity as he was in the thick of it: calm, with an air of remove. In the locker room, with reporters crowded in a tight semi-circle around him, he sits with his hands over his knees and his shoulders relaxed. His answers are considered and with the right amount of honesty required to place a certain punctuation on the end of each. You know when he is finished. On court, he expends energy in the same measured way.

He prefers to hang out at the perimeter at both ends of the floor. Against Toronto, who have smaller shooters, Hardaway was free to allow an arm’s length between his rotating marks of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Terence Davis. In a game that proved tight and at times physical in the paint, Hardaway, with his long arms out and sweeping, was something like a defensive boogeyman in Toronto’s periphery.

Lurking just outside the kinetic knot of action meant Hardaway was first down the floor in transition. Way out in front of the pack, Hardaway was free to casually drift across the court to his favored side, out from the left elbow of the key. He did it so often that it was not hard to picture the path as a groove in the court, a well-worn line that Toronto was rendered useless against in its force of habit. His teammates were trained to spot him along said path, like marking time based on what point in the sky the sun is at. Once there, he only had to plant his feet and wait.

“Shooters shoot,” Hardaway told Dime after the game, and as much as this has been true for him in his seven years in the league, something has shifted.

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Hardaway has faced an odd kind of criticism in his career for someone in the roll of shot producer: he shoots too much. At times he was likened to a loose draw, a gunslinger who would opt for volume. But against backdrops of teams lacking any discernible plan for the future, let alone internal organization — the Knicks, the Hawks, the Knicks again — shooting more only became another way to misfire. Compared against his contemporaries in the league, players like James Harden and DeMar DeRozan, the gaps in Hardaway’s shooting seem less like chasms and more like lulls. Sure, shooters shoot, but they also only make what they make.

If Hardaway was a loose cannon, it was because the ships he was aboard were caught in a rip tide or dead in the water. Of his move to the Mavs, Hardaway said, “Any time a team wants you it’s a gift. And I’m very fortunate and very thankful to be a part of this organization and team.” Dallas would soon see what being an anchor could bring.

This season, with the help of Luka Doncic, Hardaway has had a hand in steering the Mavericks to being the best offense in the league. Already this season, he’s connecting on nearly 42 percent of his 11.4 shots per game this year and hitting on a career-high 38.2 percent of his triples. His offensive efficiency is rising, and it isn’t a far stretch to equate some of the shift in production to having a hands-on head coach like Rick Carlisle, who has some of the most diverse coaching experience in the league and frequently coaches shooting clinics for FIBA and the NBA.

“He saw what I had to do to get my shot right and it helped out tremendously,” Hardaway said of Carlisle’s insight.

Carlisle himself was closer to dubious when it came to taking any of the credit for Hardaway’s improvement. “Tim Hardaway Jr. is a guy that would fit in with anybody’s system,” Carlisle said when asked about how Hardaway had found his fit in Dallas, “He’s a very underrated player. He’s a basketball player — he’s not just a shooter, not just a scorer.”

The largest hurdle for Hardaway Jr. to overcome, according to Carlisle, was his health. A factor that was largely overshadowed by the ongoing, nagging narrative surrounding his shooting. Carlisle mentioned the team “dodged a bullet” with Hardaway’s recent ankle injury suffered against the Lakers, and he’s currently day-to-day.

“Last year he was playing on half a leg,” Carlisle said. “He had a stress reaction that was almost a stress fracture in his left fibula. He had surgery to put a rod in it to basically heal it up this summer. He’s a different guy this year. His legs are sound, he’s playing great at both ends. He’s one of our best competitors, he’s a great team guy, he’s one of our leaders.”

Carlisle pauses, as if all the winning qualities he has just listed off have hit him at once, “And I love him.”

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In a game where the Raptors clawed their way back late in the fourth, closing a 30-point deficit in under five minutes, the energy was tense. An up to then mild, mostly harmlessly chippy Sunday afternoon meeting looked in danger of boiling over. The arena was loud, the energy of the game feeding the crowd and the crowd feeding the floor in that rare and perfect cyclical engine that never hurts in fueling ugly wins.

Hardaway stayed cool throughout. His multifaceted qualities that Carlisle had spoke of surfaced exactly when needed, as if yielded by extreme points of pressure. He went where his teammates needed him, drawing away a molten Lowry with screens the Raptors guard was going to scorch through, going after every offensive rebound with runs from a standstill out in the wings like a heatseeking missile and pulling aggressive, targeted charges against immovable forces like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Even as the Mavs lead dried up, Hardaway stayed magnetized to the corners on the offensive end, refusing to be baited off by a frenzied Toronto team from where he was most efficient. His shots still fell, but with Kristaps Porzingis visibly flustered and Seth Curry beset by a stifling Raptors defense, his shots alone weren’t enough.

A pre-game Carlisle likened Toronto’s depth to an arsenal of “plenty of weapons,” but when it came to discussing his own approach to shooting, a post-game Hardaway was practical, even cerebral.

“It’s a matter of just preparing,” Hardaway said. “As a shooter you have to have muscle memory and a low sense of forgetfulness. You can’t reminisce on the past. You have to have a ‘move on to the next play’ type of mentality, move on to the next shot.”

As a player, Hardaway has mastered what it means to contain. Getting healthy allows him to have control over a collection of factors on the court: reconciling memory with its limits, with paring from it what would make him less competitive to keep, and of course his shot.

He’s been defined as a player by how narrow his scope, and has worked to zero in further. In doing so, he has become a more efficient basketball player on a team that suddenly has sky-high expectations. To go from dead last in his pervious conference to top-five in the next, to have already had two games where he’s shot over seven threes this season — more than his previous six seasons combined — these are acts of doubling down, of letting your limitations do the work of starting small fires that burn hotter and longer in containment than any ranged out wildfire ever could.

Tim Hardaway Jr. coming loose is one thing; completely contained and aware of every departure as opportunity, is entirely another.