Tim Hardaway Jr. brought some things to the Knicks on Friday night that they had been missing: energy and a much-needed perimeter presence.
The Knicks attempt the fewest three-pointers in the league, but in Hardaway’s first game after missing the previous 20 with a stress injury in his lower left leg, they took 24 and made 12 against the Timberwolves. In the games Hardaway missed, they made at least 12 threes only once and attempted 24 of them only twice. But they had breakdowns in other areas in their 118-108 loss to Minnesota, their ninth defeat in the last 11 games.
The best news to come out of the game for the Knicks was how Hardaway played. He showed little rust, shot 4-for-8 from three-point range and scored 16 points in 25 minutes off the bench. The Knicks played faster and Hardaway’s presence helped spread the floor.
Now the Knicks believe they can start putting some wins together in the second half of the season because they’re whole.
“For sure,” Hardaway said. “Just looking at teams, for instance, the Miami Heat last year. They were in the same situation and they ended up having the best record after the All-Star break. We’re not there yet. At the same time, we are definitely a team that competes night in and night out.”
The Knicks (19-23) are a team that needs to win some of these close games or this season will end up looking eerily and disappointingly similar to the last two.
They were 20-21 at the midpoint two years ago and went 12-29 the rest of the way. Last season, after starting 16-13, they were 18-23 at the midpoint and went 13-28 in the second half.
This season the Knicks started 17-14, then were 19-22 at the midpoint before opening the second half with a loss. They’re four games below .500 for the first time this season and are in the midst of a critical stretch.
After playing host to New Orleans on Sunday, the Knicks begin a seven-game road trip in Brooklyn. From there, they play at Memphis, Utah, the Lakers, Golden State, Denver and Phoenix. The Knicks are 4-15 on the road, but they’ve played better lately and believe they’re ready for a breakthrough with Hardaway back in the lineup.
“He’s going to do everything he can to help us get back on track,” said Kristaps Porzingis, who should see less defensive attention with Hardaway on the court.
Only five of the next seven road opponents are above .500. Then again, the Knicks are 0-3 this season against the Bulls, who have the sixth-worst record in the league. All three losses were without Hardaway.
“The mood that we have now is based off those close, tough losses that we had — three times to Chicago, Detroit, Miami — those kind of games,” Porzingis said. “Those are tough ones to lose, especially Chicago three times so close. But we’re right there.”
If the Knicks can’t win some of these games, they could be very active heading into the Feb. 8 trade deadline. They’re already starting to make changes.
They waived guard Ramon Sessions on Saturday and will sign 25-year-old Trey Burke on Sunday to fill the roster spot, according to a source. They don’t have a point guard who can get into the paint and create shots for himself and his teammates, but the Knicks hope Burke can add that.
For now, coach Jeff Hornacek will continue to work Hardaway back into the rotation and gradually increase his minutes. He also has to figure out how to use Michael Beasley, who averaged 16.6 points with Hardaway out.
Teams have had difficulty stopping Beasley — he scored 13 points in 16 minutes Friday — but he and Porzingis haven’t played well off each other. Hornacek believes Beasley’s best position is power forward, so he often puts him there when Porzingis gets a rest.
“We’re going to have to take a look at that,” Hornacek said. “If we want to push the ball up the court and kind of keep that style, there’s going to be games where we need [Beasley] to score for us. There are days that it’s going to be Lance [Thomas]. That’s what we were doing early in the season.”
The Knicks also were winning more then. If they don’t get back to that, they could have a familiar finish to this season.