The last time Tim Hardaway Jr. won a playoff series was in 2016. He was a different player on a different team then, but he still knows how important round one momentum can be for a team primed for long-term contention.

“I think it will be phenomenal, just getting a taste of that type of victory of winning the first round. It’s great,” Hardaway Jr. said. “It will definitely build confidence in our group. And most importantly, it will give us confidence and also that edge and that firepower moving forward.”

For Dallas to win a round one series and gain that confidence Hardaway Jr. spoke of, he has to be the player he was in the final weeks of the regular season.

In May, Hardaway Jr. averaged 20.9 points per game shooting 54 percent from the field and 44 percent from three. He started eight of his nine games played, and he carried his best offensive rating of the season (134). Yet, the most important stat was Dallas going 7-2 over that stretch.

There is a clear correlation between wins and when Hardaway Jr. plays well. At his best, he can be the third scorer on this Dallas Mavericks team headlined by Luka Doncic and Kristaps Prozingis. And to compete against a Los Angeles Clippers team no “expert” picked Dallas to beat, he knows he has to be that third scorer who can get hot in a hurry, regardless of if he’s coming off the bench or starting.

“I think, for the most part, whether you’re starting or not, you’ve got to be aggressive on both ends of the floor,” he said. “Whether I am starting, or whether I am coming off of the bench, it’s me just me trying to be aggressive and be the best basketball player I can be for the team.”

Hardaway Jr. clearly sees what everyone else does. When he is aggressive, Dallas is the best version of itself. When he is not making shots, it is difficult for Dallas to win.

A positive sign, moreover, is that Hardaway Jr. often leaves his most consistent basketball for the NBA Playoffs. In the 2020 series against the LA Clippers, he averaged 17.8 points per game and shot 35 percent from three on nine attempts a game. He averaged more points in the postseason than he did in the regular season (15.8). Now, Dallas needs him to do it again.

And against the Clippers this season, Hardaway Jr. averaged 18 points per game on 55 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent from three. Dallas won two out of the three meetings he played in. There is clearly something about playing Los Angeles that brings out his efficiency.

That “something” is the reason Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle labeled him as someone who “doesn’t let us lose.”

Now Dallas will need everything from Hardaway Jr. as they attempt to steal game one against the Clippers on Saturday. Typically the No. 4 and No. 5 series is a coin flip in the NBA Playoffs. Historically, since the NBA went to a 16-team playoff, the higher seed has won 51 percent of the time (183-176). If the Mavs want to be part of the 49 percent of No. 5 seeds that beat the higher seed, they need the best Doncic, Porzingis and Hardaway Jr. It is only then that Dallas will get the last laugh.

“There is no thinking of if, or should, or could have. You don’t want to leave the game questioning yourself. We are trying to win,” Hardaway Jr. said. “All we can focus in locking in and getting ready for these guys.”

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Feature image via Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports.
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