Hardaway Cashes In For Knicks Against Hawks

Let’s all get out of Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s wallet.

The $70 Million Man put up a 34-point performance — his third 30-point performance of the season — in this road win against his former team, the Atlanta Hawks.

More importantly, he came through down the stretch, where the young Knicks have a penchant for giving away games. The ball was in his hands and Hardaway Jr. repeatedly got to the line to scored 12 points in the final five minutes of the game.

Hardaway Jr. told MSG’s Rebecca Haarlow that he was thinking about the loss to Indiana at The Garden on Halloween, when he scored 37 points but did not come through in crunch time to get the win.

“In that fourth quarter, we had the opportunity to pull ahead and we didn’t take advantage of it — I didn’t take advantage of it,” he said.

Rather than settling for jumpers (he was just 2 for 11 from three in the game), Hardaway went into attack mode and the Hawks did a poor job of keeping him out of the paint. He finished the game with a career-high 20 free throw attempts and 16 made. And, typical of the player they call Angry Grandpa, he was grumbling about the misses.

“I need to get in the gym tomorrow,” he said, “and knock down my free throws.”

It’s this side of Hardaway Jr. that a lot of the fans don’t know about. He always seems on edge. He is known to snap at teammates and be one of the loudest voices of frustration and accountability in the locker room. But, at 26, he’s trying to break the reputation of being combative and evolve into a leader who uses that passion to help the team. He credits Lance Thomas for mentoring him on how to focus on being more for his teammates both on and off the court.

Oh and he’s aware of what many say about that contract, but ask yourself: would you have turned down that money?

[Coverage Of Knicks-Raptors Begins Saturday At 2:30 PM On MSG & MSG GO.]

And while we’re on the subject, let’s see where the bang for the buck is right now with the team’s top scorer, Kristaps Porzingis, out to start the season and the NBA’s youngest roster looking for someone to carry the scoring load on most nights:

Hardaway Jr. will earn $17.3 million this season, which is the second-highest salary on his team (Enes Kanter leads the way at $18.6 million). It’s also the 14th-highest salary among shooting guards in the league. He comes right after Wes Matthews ($18.6 million), Allen Crabbe ($18.5 million) and Kent Bazemore ($18.1 million).

Among those highest-paid shooting guards in the league, which is led by James Harden ($30.4 million), Hardaway Jr. right now is the fourth-highest scorer, at 24.3 points per game. He trails only Harden (27.8 ppg), Zach LaVine (27.4 ppg) and DeMar DeRozan (26.4 ppg).

David Fizdale holds his postgame press conference after the Knicks' 112-107 win over the Hawks in Atlanta.

And he knows he will have to take a back seat to Porzingis once he returns and if a headlining free agent arrives next summer. But for now, Hardaway Jr. is trying to be the player the Knicks need him to be.

“No one expected it,” David Fizdale said. “People capped him off as who he was. I don’t believe in that. I really challenged him to step up for this team and be a good teammate and a good leader . . . He’s really trying to do that and I’m really proud of him.”

There are, of course, flaws in his game. His shooting percentage and shot selection will always be a topic of debate, as will his defense. But sometimes it’s good practice to recognize the effort a player is making — especially AFTER he signs the big contract — to not only live up to the money, but to the needs of his team.

GAME NOTES

– Here’s a theory: Frank Ntilikina‘s offense is motivated by his defense. He did a very good job in shutting down Hawks rookie Trae Young for much of the first three quarters of the game before he got into foul trouble. He used his length and positioning to keep Young off balance and off his spots to a scoreless first half and a 2-for-9 start through three quarters. Young did finish with 15 points, but ended the game 1 for 7 from three-point range. Fizdale said Ntilikina “did a heck of a job setting a tone defensively” and it’s hard not to notice that when Ntilikina is engaged on defense, he attacks on offense. He broke out of a three-game slump by scoring 14 points in 23 minutes, shot 5 for 10 from the field, which included 2 of 4 from three point range (after missing his previous 13 attempts from downtown) with 3 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal. Ntilikina credited help from the bigs — Kanter, Noah Vonleh and Mitchell Robinson — on the effort to control Atlanta’s top scorer. “I always heard them” on screens, Ntilikina said. “That’s how good defense plays. It’s not going to be one-on-one, its going to be the team against all these players. I give credit to them.”

– While Allonzo Trier (16 points, including a step-back that sent Bazemore back to Old Dominion) is already looking quite comfortable as a pro, Kevin Knox (scoreless, 0 for 6 and -14 in 9 minutes) is still trying to find his rhythm after missing two weeks with an ankle injury. He’s played three games so far this week since he was cleared by doctors on Sunday, but Fizdale has limited his minutes. Fizdale sounds like he really didn’t want to play Knox until he had the opportunity to get some work in at practice, which has not been the case since the Knicks have played three games in four days. “This is, really, his practice,” Fizdale said. The team has two days between games, so perhaps by Saturday in Toronto you may see Knox get more minutes. It’s been a slow start for the lottery pick, between his struggles in preseason and the early ankle injury. But there’s a lot of season to go for the 19-year-old.

– With Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay (11 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists) getting the rotation at the point guard spot, veteran Trey Burke was a DNP-CD for the game. The last thing he wants to do after a win is complain about his playing time, but Burke knows if he says nothing when asked about it — and, of course, he was asked about it — it can be misinterpreted as being disgruntled. So he told the inquiring reporter that he was surprised by it but vowed to stay ready. Fizdale acknowledged Burke’s DNP, saying “To not play any of ’em is a tough call for me,” and added, “Trey knows he’s in my holster.” Burke has struggled to pick up where he left off last season, when he averaged 12.8 points per game in 21.8 minutes while shooting 50% from the field. This season in 11 games, Burke is shooting just 40.6% and scoring 9.5 points in 20.1 minutes. Ntilikina took his starting spot and Mudiay has since taken his minutes as the backup.

Once a Knick, Always a Knick. Bernard King reveals his special message to the Knicks before tonight's game against the Atlanta Hawks.

– Fizdale brought another Knicks legend in to talk to the players. With the team in his hometown of Atlanta, Bernard King was at shoot-around on Wednesday morning. He proudly wore his No. 30 Knicks jersey and spent time talking to Fizdale and then also took Knox aside for some tutelage. Knox can learn a lot from King when it comes to basketball. No one approached the game with more intensity and ferocity than King. His workouts were, themselves, tactical brilliance. He once told me that he created a grid on both sides of the court with spots in the grid where he would get his shots in a game. He would practice for hours those specific shots so that when he was in a game, it was all simple muscle-memory. He also had one of the quickest releases and an unstoppable pivot move and, in his early days, ran the floor harder than anyone in the game. If I’m Kevin Knox Sr., I’m getting video of King’s career and having my son watch it repeatedly and then try to emulate his game.

– Hardaway Jr. attempted 20 free throws in the game. King did that five times in his Knicks career. But who was the last Knick to attempt 20 free throws in a game? Hint: it also happened on the road and, oh by the way, you saw this big shot on ESPN last night.

[Coverage Of Knicks-Raptors Begins Saturday At 2:30 PM On MSG & MSG GO.]