LOS ANGELES – The most optimistic assessment of this Knicks season looks at Nov. 29 as the pivotal moment.
That’s when Tim Hardaway Jr. left a victory over Miami with what was later diagnosed as a stress injury in his leg, beginning a stretch of 20 straight games with the shooting guard on the inactive list. When Hardaway Jr. went down, the Knicks were a game over .500 and positive vibes were flowing. When he returned, they were in the middle of a stretch of 10 defeats over 12 games that buried playoff aspirations and left everybody hollering, “Same ol’ Knicks.”
Hardaway Jr. has certainly been part of those struggles since being reinserted into the lineup, resurfacing the criticisms that he’s not worth the $71 million commitment. He points to the stress injury as the turning point.
“I had a solid preseason, struggled the first four games of the regular season and then was just cruising after that,” Hardaway Jr. told the Daily News. “We were winning. We had a winning streak here and there. I felt confident, I felt great – and then, the injury. The injury I think was a blow to the team. I was very disappointed. I really felt like if I didn’t have that injury we wouldn’t be in the position we’d be in right now. And it sucks. But it’s life.”
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Again, this is the optimistic view. Another opinion could be that the Knicks were always a bad team – even at 17-14 in late December – and simply benefitted from a home-heavy early schedule. But it’s indisputable that Hardaway Jr. was a positive revelation until the injury, a formidable sidekick to Kristaps Porzingis.
He’s also a big part of New York’s future with three more years and $53 million remaining on his contract. Given the results in Year 1, it’s hard to know what to expect. Is Hardaway Jr. the player who averaged 19.2 points on 44 percent shooting in November? Or, is he the player who shot 37 percent while averaging just 2.8 assists in February?
He believes it’s the former and has lofty goals to prove it.
“I want to average 18, 19 points. I want to average 5 or 6 assists, 5 or 6 rebounds and get a starting point. Everybody has goals and definitely I want to become an All-Star in the near future and hopefully next year. I’m putting in a lot of work,” he told the News. “I think (I would’ve reached those goals without the stress injury). I believe so. It sucked when it happened just because we had such a good group going and everything. And when the injury happened it took a toll on me and I felt like I let my teammates down.”
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Part of Hardaway Jr.’s growth is learning how to deal with the extra defensive attention. He hasn’t adjusted well since Kristaps Porzingis was lost for the season with an ACL tear, with his shooting percentages dipping to 41 percent overall and 32 percent from beyond the arc. Playmaking is an issue and there’s much to be desired in Hardaway Jr.’s pick-and-roll game.
That’s part of what these final 20 games are about – to see if Hardaway Jr. can really be a solid No. 2 or 3 guy on a playoff team. He’s certainly paid like it. And despite the negative direction this season has veered for both himself and the Knicks, Hardaway Jr. is passionate about this homestretch.
“The last 20 game, we have to go all out. If people think we’re going to tank and just give up games and stuff like that, they’re rooting for the wrong team,” he said. “We’re not built that way. We’re not losers. And we don’t look at that as a way of just summing up our season. We’re ballplayers. We have confidence in ourselves and if people want to doubt us than they can go cheer for somebody else.”