The signing of Tim Hardaway Jr. for $71 million over the summer seemed exorbitant and redundant for many Knicks fans and league observers, especially because the team had inked Courtney Lee as a free agent to play the same position one year earlier.
But the two swingmen have thrived on the court concurrently for much of this season, and perhaps never more than during the insane 28-0 third-quarter run the Knicks used to fuel their 108-100 win on Wednesday night against Toronto.
The Knicks next will visit Hardaway’s former team on Friday in Atlanta, and both Lee (at small forward) and Hardaway (at shooting guard) will be in the starting lineup for the 18th straight game as the Knicks look to improve upon their unexpected 10-7 start against the NBA-worst Hawks (3-15).
“It’s worked well. Two guys that are capable of shooting threes, two guys that are going to cut hard and then also give effort on the defensive end,” Lee said following Wednesday’s comeback win. “The NBA is trending to smaller lineups. If everybody plays their role and plays together, it doesn’t matter who’s out there.”
Hardaway held scoreless for three quarters, comes alive in fourth
Unencumbered within Hornacek’s up-tempo system following the departure of Phil Jackson and the triangle offense, the Knicks are averaging 104.9 points per game, a slight increase from last season.
Hardaway, who returned to New York following a 2015 trade to Atlanta, is averaging a career-best 18.4 points per game, while Lee ranks fourth on the team with an 11.2-point scoring average, his highest figure since 2011-12 with Houston.
“They’re both two-way players,” Hornacek said of the tandem. “There’s been a lot of talk about how Tim has stepped up his defense since his rookie year. He’s been in the league now five years…and when he was in Atlanta they forced him to make sure he played defense. He’s doing a great job of that.
“Both of those guys are feeling comfortable enough, even though Tim at the three is probably a little undersized at times. Courtney maybe weighs a little bit more that we can put him on a bigger three with Tim playing the two-man. But those two guys give us good weapons on both sides of the court, if we want to run some action with either one of them, we can get that.”
Knicks stun Cavs behind Tim Hardaway Jr.’s 34-point explosion
Hardaway and Lee actually spearheaded the Knicks’ third-quarter domination on Wednesday night, with leading scorer Kristaps Porzingis netting only two points (on free throws) in the 41-10 two-way assault.
Lee, who was called out specifically by Hornacek at halftime, scored nine early points in the quarter-long spurt to spark the onslaught, while Hardaway registered 12 of his career-high 38 points in the session.
“We came in here, we watched film and coach kind of got on me,” Lee said, adding that Hornacek’s words were “a little explicit.”
“I really didn’t like what was being said. That’s what you’re supposed to do as a player. You’re supposed to respond,” Lee continued. “And not only did I respond, but everybody on the team was out there and we played great defense in the second half. I don’t think I can repeat what (Hornacek) said, to the media. But we exchanged words and we went from there, responded and we got the win.”
Tim Hardaway Jr. focused on taking Knicks to playoffs
The Knicks were behind by 11 points at halftime, but they now have won seven times already this season in games they’ve trailed by double-digit deficits.
“We knew that was the first half, there were moments we played good but for the most part, that wasn’t us again,” Porzingis said. “At halftime, we had some stronger words for each other and we talked about stuff that we wanted to do better and we came out in the second half and played like a different team.”
The Knicks, who planned to spend Thanksgiving dinner at the Atlanta-area home of veteran point guard Jarrett Jack, have shown plenty of differences to start the first season since Jackson was fired, the triangle was scrapped and Carmelo Anthony was traded to Oklahoma City.
As Lee noted, “Last year we were running a different system, a little slower pace, but this year is more up and down.”
Tim Hardaway Jr. ‘definitely’ wants Carmelo to stay with Knicks
Adding Hardaway to that system, on what fully seemed like an ill-advised deal a short time ago, has turned out to be a strong fit and has been as important as any of the changes.
The Hawks, who were offering $48 million over the same timeframe, didn’t match the Knicks’ four-year, $71 million offer sheet for the restricted free agent in July.
“I think there was that concern. Tim had started to turn the corner in terms of being a great player. He finished the last half of the season having a very good second half, and we knew that was just kind of the beginning,” Hornacek said of Hardaway, the Knicks’ first-round pick in 2013. “So I don’t think there was any concern about bringing him back. (Knicks president) Steve Mills did a great job of figuring out how we could get him and what it might take. There was concern that Atlanta might match it, so when they didn’t, we were pretty happy.”
As is Hardaway, who noted: “I’m thankful to be back here. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me. I’m happy, I’m excited. This group loves one another. You can see out there on the floor we’re playing for one another. The passion is there. Like I said, we’re continuing to look for our identity. That’s what I love about this team.”
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