The Knicks Fix: In Honoring Mase, Hardaway Jr. Might Have Found His Game

Tim Hardaway Jr. is what they call a legacy player in the NBA. We’re seeing a wave of second generations — sons of fathers who played in the league — in today’s game that include Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Love, Wesley Matthews, Austin Rivers, Gerald Henderson and Andrew Wiggins, among a few others.

Many of them, like Hardaway Jr., are kids who grew up in the NBA environment. They knew the league from the eyes of their fathers and their experiences toddling along with them to practices and games. They forged friendships with other Basketball Silver Spooners and also their father’s teammates.

Hardaway Jr. was 8 years old when he met Anthony Mason, who had two boys, Anthony Jr. and Antoine, around the same age. Mason joined the Miami Heat that season and became fast friends with Heat veteran Tim Hardaway Sr. He took a liking to Tim Jr., as well, and would take the time to talk and play basketball with the younger Hardaway.

It was only for one season, but it left an indelible mark on young Tim. Over a decade later, when he became a Knick, one of the first familiar faces he saw around The Garden was Anthony Mason.

“Do you remember me?” Mason asked him.

“I remembered,” Tim Jr. recalled of the moment, “like it was yesterday.”

Mase had that kind of impact on many people he met. Brash, but friendly, he had an engaging, confident personality that drew you in. He was so New York and proud of it. He enjoyed trash talking with some of the best in the game, which is what, of course, sparked the friendship between him and Tim Sr.

His passing last Saturday morning left a lot of Knicks Nation with a heavy heart. There aren’t many players left on this roster who have any real emotional attachment to Knicks history — Lance Thomas, for one, grew up a Knicks fan — but Hardaway Jr. felt the pain of Mason’s death on a deeply personal level.

“It’s tough to see him gone,” he said.

At halftime that evening against the Toronto Raptors, Hardaway Jr. already had 18 points in 19 minutes. He told MSG Networks’ Al Trautwig, “This game is going to be for him.”

Hardaway Jr. finished the game with 22 points and added 7 rebounds in what became a thrilling 103-98 Knicks win.

It might have been his best performance of the season, not just by statistics but by the way he played. Hardaway Jr. was assertive on offense and didn’t settle for jumpers, which had become his penchant this season. He tied a season high with 7 free throw attempts and made several plays to the rim.

More importantly was his defensive effort, which has been a challenge for him in his second season. Hardaway Jr. went up against the explosive DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 13 points on 3 of 15 shooting.

Afterward, he talked about “competing every minute you’re out there “ and credited his film work for helping him read defenses and utilizing screens from the bigs. For the first time this season, Hardaway Jr. spoke with confidence and conviction. He sounded focused and self-assured. He sounded like a veteran. And he was playing like a pro.

Now that we’ve seen it, this can’t a one game aberration. Actually, the night before in Detroit he had 17 points in the double-overtime win. He also defended Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had 19 points but was just 3 for 11 from downtown. With 25 games left in this season, this needs to become the trend for Hardaway Jr. to set a new standard for himself to take into next year.

After an All-Rookie season last year, Hardaway Jr. has been somewhat of an enigma in his second season. Along with his defensive struggles, his shooting percentage fell under 40% (39.2%) on the season and he’s hitting just 33.2% from downtown. He went from being a player in the Rising Stars game at All-Star Weekend as a rookie to not getting invited back as a sophomore.

The trade that sent his two closest friends on the team, JR Smith and Iman Shumpert, to Cleveland seemed to affect him for a while. But over the last few days, Hardaway Jr. seems to be locking in on the kind of work habits and focus that has, in the last two games, given us a glimpse of his potential.

Perhaps it took some inspiration from a memory of an old friend, Anthony Mason, who often shared the secret of his success in a simple phrase: “Nobody outworked me.”