Hardaway impressing Hawks, critics and his father

It was about two months and probably two dozen “inactive” or “DNP-coach’s decision” designations into his son’s miserable season when Tim Hardaway Sr. received a phone call. He heard the frustration on the other end of the line, the self-doubt, maybe even a little shock.

“I told him to hang in there, trust the process,” the father said. “I told him the season is 82 games, and we’re only going into the third month. Show them what you can do. Show them that you can fit in. I think when the Hawks told Tim, ‘You need to get better on some things and until then we’re going to put you on the inactive list and or send you down to the D-League,’ it was an eye-opener for him.”

Tim Hardaway Jr. is the one opening eyes now. If you’re wondering about a potential “X” factor for the Hawks going into the playoffs, he might be it.

He was forced to mostly sit and watch through the first two months of the Hawks’ season. It took a while before he slowly won acceptance from the team’s hard-to-please coach and poo-bah, Mike Budenholzer. But he’s now a central part of Budenholzer’s rotation, playing defense, getting out on the fast break, moving the ball, coming off screens and getting open shots.

During a recent four-game stretch, he came off the bench to score 21, 20, 16 and 14 points with 13 three-pointers, 15 rebounds, six assists, four steals and a combined four-game plus-minus of plus-68. The Hawks have been on a roll (12 wins in 15 games entering Saturday), and Hardaway has been a major part of that.

“I give him so much credit,” Kyle Korver said. “When he was in street clothes, he was cheering harder than anybody on the bench. He kept his head up, he kept on working, kept on grinding. He’s been in the weight room. He changed his body. he changed his diet. He studied film. I think this is what everybody pictured when we made the trade.”

Budenholzer is a great coach. Whether he could be defined as a great, or even good, decision-maker in the area of personnel would hinge partly on the three-way trade last June that effectively sent Hardaway from the New York Knicks to the Hawks for first-round pick Kelly Oubre.

It wasn’t a popular trade among fans and some media members, who saw Hardaway as a no-defense, undisciplined player who would be a poor fit in Budenholzer’s motion-offense system.

Oops.

“I loved the trade for Tim. The team he’s on is the team that he needs to be on,” Hardaway Sr. said. “That’s the way they played at Michigan.”

Hardaway looks like he is playing with sheer joy, not the stress associated with somebody struggling to fit in.

“The trade was good for me,” he said. “It’s natural to wonder at times (if it’s going to work out). But you have to take that challenge and try to get back to where you were before. I’m happy I went through that process. It made me a better person, it made me a better player and it made me a better teammate.”

Did he learn anything about himself?

“Just don’t give up,” he said. “Come in early, get extra reps, stay after practice, encourage teammates when you’re on the bench. And just keep on competing at the defensive end, because I think that opened doors for me more than the offense.”

There’s an awkward byproduct of having an NBA dad. When the Hawks played at Detroit on Saturday night, Hardaway Jr. was playing for the Hawks and Hardaway Sr. was an assistant coach for the Pistons.

“Very hard, very difficult, very tough,” the father said of watching Tim play for another team. “I want him to do well, but I also want us to beat him. I can’t cheer.”

Their relationship has evolved. Tim Sr. was the stereotypical, bad little league dad, screaming from the stands, seldom pleased with his son’s efforts. It got to the point where Tim Jr. had to cut off communication for weeks at a time. But one night the father decided to sit alone at the top of the high school bleachers in Miami, and made himself watch the game. Silently. It was therapeutic for both. That was the dad’s awakening. He apologized to Tim after the game for the way he had been acting.

Tim Sr. said he watches every game his son plays, either on tape or live on TV when his schedule permits. But they don’t talk about basketball unless the player brings it up.

“It’s made both of our lives better and easier,” the father said.

Does Hardaway still feel he’s being judged when he plays in front of his father?

“He’s still critiquing my game, whether he’s on the bench or watching me on TV or on film,” he said. “At the end of the day, he’s always going to be my father and he’s always going to have the last word.”

But the words are positive now, as are amended reviews of the trade.

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