Tim Hardaway Jr. is scorching hot, but so is whoever he is guarding

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Tim Hardaway Jr. has been on absolute fire to start this season. He’s 12th in the NBA in scoring, with 26.0 points per game, and he is attempting over 9 triples per contest connecting on a remarkable 41.1% of them. For those who have argued (absolutely guilty) that he’s overpaid, he suddenly appears a lot less overpaid than he did 8 games ago, doesn’t he?

Certainly this level of scoring is what Knicks Team President Steve Mills had in mind in July 2017 when he inked him to a contract similar to the one Joakim Noah received the summer before.

But you probably also noticed that opposing teams so far this year have been going at Tim Hardaway Jr. And I mean going at him.

Ideally, teams look for the best open shot for anyone on their club. But in order to achieve that gold-standard they may begin by exploiting a mismatch. They might look to involve someone who isn’t a great defender in lots of pick and rolls. They might force certain switches in order to get a little guy on a big guy or a slow guy on a fast guy. Whatever the goal, it seems that some teams have been focusing on attacking the former Wolverine.

It happened a couple Mondays ago in Milwaukee when Hardaway lead the team with 24 points but was a -25 +/- for the game. And we saw that type of paradoxical statistic again on Wednesday night, when he went for a team high 37 points but was a team low -14 plus/minus. Now, of course, a single game, or two, of plus/minus data isn’t something to worry about, so let’s check out some film to see what we think.

Well vs. the Bucks there was this:

And this:

As you can see in the clip above, it seems Hardaway sometimes has trouble on very standard elements of defense. Most people reading this probably know you cut off-baseline because you don’t have help that way, and those who played organized ball will certainly have heard you put your  inside foot along the baseline inviting the player to drive out of bounds. The middle is where your help will come from.

By contrast, a two-way player (yes, I said it) like Allonzo Trier, undrafted, and playing in his 4th ever NBA game, below, has this simple principle down cold:

In Wednesday’s game, Nate McMillan’s Pacers seemed to have had in mind the exact same thing Bucks’ Coach Mike Budenholzer had in mind back on the 22nd: make Hardaway work his butt off on defense. Let’s take a look.

Hardaway Erupts for a Career High 7 Triples and 37 Points But…

The Pacers feature a couple players (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis) who Knicks GM Scott Perry helped the Orlando Magic draft. But then they committed the cardinal sin of quitting too soon on high lottery picks and let them get away to rent veteran Serge Ibaka’s services for a little bit. Below, Victor Oladipo, now a budding superstar, casually sets Hardaway up on a double screen. It’s only October so neither the offense nor the defense is in gear during the first quarter. But as former Knick, Mark Jackson says…hand down man down.

A casual October jog to conserve energy for offense, but look! Timmy’s teammates Frank Ntilkina, Noah Vonleh and Trier combine to force a a stop! The ball comes back out but unfortunately finds the guy Hardaway is guarding, Corey Joseph. Hardaway forgets to cut off baseline again and an easy dump off. Sigh.

(By the way, I know this is a piece about Hardaway’s defense, but can we just look at the lob that Mitchell Robinson even attempted to dunk in that last one? If he even considered dunking that which it looks like he did we may be in for some freak-show highlights eventually).

This isn’t the 1994 Pat Riley days of “no layups” anymore but couldn’t it at least be the days of “try to force a pull up or something?”

This above isn’t a play Hardaway is in at all. But on a night he dropped 37 with 7/11 from three, Jeff Van Gundy accidentally called James Harden “Hardaway” so it must be showed. Also, gorgeous Harden-style step-back move by Oladipo!

Moving on…

As we enter the 4th, the Pacers hone in on their target over and over. Just like Milwaukee did, Nate McMillan employs “seek-and-destroy Hardaway” throughout the night.

Transition moment: Trey Burke fails to stop the ball and Hardaway makes the correct read and slides over to protect the rim but he doesn’t take an angle that gets him there in time and he’s completely vulnerable. This exact type of play (shuffling into the restricted area too deeply and too late) leads to loads of And-1’s. It’s nuts, but if Tyreke Evans was an All-Star he may have even been able to get away with elbowing Hardaway in the chin or putting a knee into his chest and still drawn a continuation. That’s how bad of a spot Tim was in given the way this type of play is often officiated around the league.

We get to crunch time now. Domantas Sabonis, above, makes a careless mistake but it’s clear what Indiana intends to do: find no. 3 and hammer him!

Oladipo gets the kick out with 17 on the shot clock. Assesses the situation. Basically tells the troops, “let’s not get too cute, fellas. Find no. 3. ’cause there’s a mouse in the house for Thad Young.”

Sabonis and Oladipo have great chemistry. Sabonis initiates the dribble hand off. Sets a punishing pick on Tim and ‘Dipo drops the dime. It feels unfair.

Ough. You can start to see the cumulative effect here. Now our own Michael DeStefano argued that Hardaway should not be the primary ball handler in this situation. But carrying the team offensively all night and being sought out and attacked mercilessly on defense, Hardaway’s now running on fumes. It’s like a running back in the NFL playing every offensive snap but then also asked to play middle linebacker for every defensive snap. Tim played so well on offense but he did give chunks of it back on D.

All Knicks fans know that it’s a rite of passage for pretty much every superstar, at least once in their career, to rip fans’ hearts out in the Garden. Oladipo goes back to the well on no. 3. KD would be impressed by the KD patented “hesi pull-up jimbo” dagger.

Knicks fans might say “Frank has the length to get a better contest on that, why isn’t he on ‘Dipo?” And they’re absolutely right. But we already saw the Pacers react to that by forcing Hardaway into a switch then feeding Young or Sabonis to hammer him. If he’s on Oladipo, go to work. If he’s not, run a screen to get a switch. They not only get easy buckets but also utterly exhaust the Knicks’ only true scoring threat. Double whammy. Story of the brief season so far when they play better teams. Tim’s final misses were unsurprisingly short.

This Isn’t Fair

So look, I know what you’re thinking. And don’t get me wrong, I’m thinking it too. Tim is what he is and he’s not a great defender, although he’s improved some from his days in Atlanta when Mike Budenholzer relegated him to the G-League for these exact types of lapses. So how fair is a piece like this just after one of the best games of Hardaway’s career? Not very. I get it.

Bad defense can be made worse by compounding risk factors; that is variables that work together to make everything exponentially worse. For example, what’s your personal risk level for being eaten by a bear? Tons of variables could affect your odds. Do you live in a rural area? Do you live in a colder climate? Do you spend lots of time outdoors? Are you a wild Alaskan Salmon? A “yes” to one of those is a risk. A yes to all four compounds risk exponentially. In basketball, that principle is called synergy and it can be good or bad. Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala are all great defenders, but paired together and we see a championship level defensive synergy.

The Knicks have some negative synergies that don’t help. Tim Hardaway sometimes has Trey Burke on one wing and Enes Kanter “protecting” the rim behind him. All are poor defenders. You get the gist. They combine their powers to form Matador Voltron. So it’s not fair. In the Eric Gordon role on last year’s Rockets he might appear eminently capable on the defensive end.

But for Hardaway specifically, what is going on? Is it effort? Is it athleticism? Is it awareness or B-Ball IQ? Is it fatigue from being, as Knicks Film School’s own Jonanthan Macri would say, a third banana playing the part of the top banana? Is it that teams not only like their chances scoring on him but also want to tire him out? Is it knowing this is the first couple weeks of a rebuilding year? If you asked “What’s all of the above, Alex?” I’d think you’d just hit the daily double.

One thing we know. As long as coach David Fizdale continues to challenge his best scorer with matchups like Caris LaVert, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, Kris Middleton or Victor Oladipo, there are going to be some very rough nights ahead defensively. But some more really fun shoot-outs for us to watch too. Coach Fiz has already begun to shuffle the lineups and will continue to tinker so he may discover some better synergies and ways for his “puppies” as he calls them, to complement each other.