Tim Hardaway Jr. isn’t just knocking at opportunity’s door.
He’s about to kick it in.
The Hawks shooting guard was the catalyst for yet another dramatic victory with a career-high 33 points in a 113-108 victory over the Rockets on Thursday night. The Hawks erased a 20-point deficit in the final 8:27 as Hardaway scored 23 fourth-quarter points. He had 20 of the Hawks’ points in their 36-11 run to end the game.
The Hawks have decisions to make regarding Hardaway — now and in the future. Such stellar performances, it can be argued, has earned Hardaway a spot in the starting lineup. Perhaps more important, he will be a restricted free agent this summer. His play has warranted a significant salary. There will be several interested teams bidding against the Hawks’ right to match any offer.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer recently said he prefers the offensive spark that Hardaway provides off the bench, and the immediate plan is to keep him with the reserves. Hardaway has started the past three games with Thabo Sefolosha out with left groin injury. He has started nine games this season and averaged 17.1 points, 3.6 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 33.8 minutes. In his 39 games off the bench, he has averaged 11.3 points, 1.7 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 21.8 minutes.
In the remarkable 36-11 run, the Hawks were 15-of-20 from the field. Hardaway was 8-of-10. The Rockets were a combined 4-of-17. Before Hardaway, the most-recent time a Hawks player scored 20 or more points in a quarter was when Joe Johnson scored 21 against the Nets on Nov. 14, 2008.
Hardaway’s previous career high was 29 points — or six more than he scored in the fourth quarter Thursday.
“He got a couple of drives and then saw a couple of 3’s go in,” Budenholzer said. “Once he has both going, he can be a tough cover because we always talk about how good he is attacking the basket and getting to the rim and he got an and-one. He just kind of had everything going. It was one of those special quarters for a young player who is really emerging and arising.”
In addition to Budenholzer, teammates praised Hardaway after the victory. He was mobbed on the court. He was swept off to do interviews with TNT and ESPN. The lauds continued in the locker room.
Hardaway deflected much of the attention. Following several questions about his performance, he credited the victory to the fourth-quarter defensive effort of rookie DeAndre Bembry on Rockets star James Harden.
“Tim as making crazy shots,” said Dwight Howard, who had 24 points and 23 rebounds in the game. “We kept trying to find plays to get him attacking the basket. That’s what I kept telling him, ‘Tim, attack, attack, attack.’ It opened up everything was he started doing that.”
Budenholzer has used Hardaway down the stretch in big victories. He played a career-high 58 minutes in the four overtime win over the Knicks on Sunday. He played 17 of the 24 second-half minutes against the Rockets, including the final 9:45.
The Hawks cut the one-time 20-point deficit to seven points, 106-99, with 4:03 remaining. Hardaway scored the next 12 points for the Hawks with a two layups, a 3-pointer, three free throws and a drive down the middle for an emphatic dunk. Bembry scored the final Hawks points on a dunk with 5.4 seconds left.
The Hawks have had some dramatic victories to go with some poor losses this season. The win over the Rockets came just one night after a 23-point loss at the Heat. It’s not the first time the Hawks overcame a 20-point deficit to win this season. They did so against the Bucks in December. They also erased a 10-point deficit in the final three minutes against the Bulls last week.
Hardaway is playing an increased role since the trade of Kyle Korver. The more he plays, the more he has set about knocking down that door.