Hawks now getting better of the Hardaway Jr. trade

That Tim Hardaway Jr. for Jerian Grant trade is really starting to work out … for the Hawks.

Hardaway had his best game of the season for the Hawks in an 87-76 win over the Hornets on Sunday with 11 points (on 5 of 8 shooting) with two rebounds, one assist and one steal in 25 minutes. He played the final 7:05 of the fourth quarter. He entered with the Hawks holding a two-point lead, 70-68, and was part of the 17-8 run to end the game and secure a much-needed win. He started the decisive run by driving to the basket and converting a 10-foot floater in the lane.

“It was a solid game,” Hardaway said following the win. “I could have made some more shots. I could have gotten my teammates involved and rebounded a little better. At the end of the day, a win is a win. It’s what we are fighting for.”

The Hawks now start a five-game road trip on Tuesday against the Warriors, Lakers, Clippers, Jazz and Raptors. It’s an important stretch as they stand fifth in the Eastern Conference with 22 games remaining in the regular season. They trail the Cavaliers by nine games, the Raptors by seven, the Celtics by two and the Heat by a half-game.

The Hawks acquired Hardaway from the Knicks in a draft-night trade for Grant as the 19th overall pick. Hardaway, entering his third NBA season, had a well-documented slow start with the Hawks as he battled a wrist injury, learned a new system and dedicated himself to the defensive end of the court. He played sparingly (just four of the first 35 games) and popular opinion was the Knicks got one over on the Hawks. That’s not the case anymore.

Hardaway, who has now assumed the backup shooting guard spot, has appeared in 29 games and averaged 4.8 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 15.6 minutes. He has played in each of the past 25 games since returning from a short stint in the NBA Development League. His playing time has increased and coach Mike Budenholzer is turning to Hardaway for late-game defense. He has played more than 25 minutes in two of the past three games.

Grant, the rookie point guard, has appeared in 55 games for the Knicks and averaged 4.7 points, 2.5 assists and 1.7 rebounds in 15.6 minutes. Grant’s playing time has decreased under new head coach Kurt Rambis as he has averaged 13 minutes per game with three DNP’s in the past eight contests.

Budenholzer and several teammates said Hardaway played his best game of the season against the Hornets.

“I think so, if you put both ends of the court,” Budenholzer said. “He’s been doing really well defensively but I thought the floater going down the lane when it was a two- point game and he got in the lane and made that shot (were important). The layup in transition was big. He made a great pass to Al (Horford), who wasn’t able to finish. I think he did a lot of good things offensively in addition to his good defense.”

After the win, Kent Bazemore and Horford both stressed the importance of the depth that Hardaway brings to the team.

“He was great,” Horford said. “I feel like he is starting to understand what we expect from him, what we need. More than anything, defensively he is bringing it. When he can play defense the way he is playing, it just makes us a better team.”

Hardaway has scored in double-figures four times this season. His previous best game with the Hawks came at the 76ers on Feb. 3 when he had 13 points, a career-high seven rebounds, four assists and a steal. That was in blowout win. On Sunday, he played the final seven minutes when it appeared the Hawks were about to lose what was once a 24-point lead. For the game, he led the team with a plus-20 rating.

“It felt really good,” Hardaway said of is late-game contributions. “It doesn’t matter. As long as we get the win, I’m fine with that no matter who is on the court.”