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SportsColumnistsAl Iannazzone

Tim Hardaway Jr. aims to show young Knicks how to fight to end

Hardaway Jr. has continued to play hard and is hoping he can lift his teammates with his activity and hustle.

Knicks forward Tim Hardaway Jr. reacts after a

Knicks forward Tim Hardaway Jr. reacts after a basket against the Raptors at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Knicks are plummeting and have been for a long time, with 14 losses in their last 15 games. But the player Michael Beasley nicknamed “Angry Grandpa” is trying to remain upbeat, positive and a good example during this rough stretch.

Tim Hardaway Jr. has continued to play hard and hopes he can lift his teammates with his activity and hustle.

“I’m not only playing for the team, my last name, but I’m playing for the young guys,” Hardaway said. “I want the young guys to see that even in tough situations, you still have to go out there and fight. You still have to go out there and compete, try to lead in any aspect that you can.

“I’m still learning as a ballplayer. I think this is a great test for me to go out and play hard for my teammates on both ends of the floor, put my guys in situations where they can succeed and encourage them any way I can.”

Hardaway should be this way — playing with energy, drawing charges and trying to end the season the right way. The Knicks signed him to a four-year, $71-million contract last summer to be a core piece in their rebuild, and it’s his job and responsibility.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Jeff Hornacek has credited Hardaway for stepping in and taking charges and making plays. It’s something Hardaway’s father, former NBA great Tim Hardaway, has talked about with him.

“He just tells me go out there and compete at both ends of the floor,” the younger Hardaway said. “Let your defense create your offense, drive to the basket, get your teammates involved, rebound, do little things, take charges. Just be an all-around dog on both ends of the floor and do whatever you can to finish the season strong.”

The Knicks’ season might have gone differently had Hardaway not missed 20 games with a leg injury.

Hardaway and Kristaps Porzingis, who suffered an ACL tear last month, have played only 30 games together. The Knicks are 13-17 when they both play. Without one or both, they’re 11-25 — and it could be a while before the two play together again.

No timetable has been given for Porzingis’ return, but he might not be back before the calendar turns to 2019. So next season could be rough, too. But Hardaway, who is averaging 17.3 points, believes this experience is teaching him how to be a leader and helping him and his teammates prepare for next season.

“I got to come back hungrier, stronger, being more decisive on both ends of the floor, showing my guys that I’m here to compete for them like I’m doing right now and continuing to show them that it’s not going to happen overnight,” Hardaway said. “We’re going to try to hold down the fort as much as possible while KP’s out.

“A lot of good is going to come out of this. We’re going to come back stronger than ever, with a stronger mindset and a killer instinct. This is a true test for us. I’m happy we’re going through it right now at a young age.”

Frank’s future

Rookie Frank Ntilikina started the season as the Knicks’ point guard of the future and is ending it playing more off guard. Emmanuel Mudiay has been the primary point guard, with Ntilikina and Trey Burke playing both backcourt positions.

“It’s exciting,” Ntilikina said. “I’m trying to be the best player I can become. Having challenges like that is so much fun for me trying to explore my game to do a lot of great things on the court. I’ll learn from it.”

Ntilikina appears to be the best prospect of the three.

He hasn’t stood out at either position; he’s shooting 35.5 percent and averaging 3.1 assists. But Ntilikina is only 19, works hard, has a great attitude and is one of the Knicks’ better defenders. He’s 6-5 and has shown he can guard both backcourt positions.

Jeff Hornacek believes that with work, Ntilikina “will be a dynamite shooter someday.” He also thinks that as Ntilikina gets bigger and stronger, he’ll be able to guard some small and power forwards.

“He’s got the versatility and the size and the length,” Hornacek said. “Once he gets that strength, he’s going to be a heck of a weapon to try to switch on different guys.”

Kanter’s career year

Enes Kanter is averaging career bests in rebounds (10.8) and field-goal percentage (60.5), and his 32 double-doubles already are a career high. But he said the numbers mean nothing because he won’t be in the playoffs for the first time in three years.

“I don’t really follow my stats,” Kanter said. “If the team’s not winning, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t mean anything. You’re never satisfied. You can always do better. You can just add to your game.”

Kanter, who doesn’t have an agent, has an $18.6-million player option for next season that many believe he will pick up. He said he hasn’t decided and that “it would be really selfish” to think about his contract.

9/11 Memorial Stair Climb

The Knicks will hold their first-ever 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at 10 a.m. March 31 inside Madison Square Garden before their evening game against the Pistons. It’s open to 343 participants who will have the opportunity to climb the equivalent of 110 flights of stairs, paying tribute to the 343 FDNY members who died on Sept. 11, 2001. To register, visit http://www.nba.com/knicks/memorial-climb.

Signs of the times

The recruiting of LeBron James has begun. Not by teams, but cities.

A Lakers season-ticket holder paid for four billboards around Los Angeles, trying to entice James to join the Lakers as a free agent this summer. James and the Cavaliers are in Los Angeles this weekend; they lost to the Clippers on Friday and will face the Lakers on Sunday.

Recently, a Philadelphia-based company put up three billboards on the way to downtown Cleveland, letting James know Philadelphia wants him. A Cleveland marketing firm responded with a sign of its own outside the Cavaliers’ home arena.

All four L.A. billboards have the hashtag “#LABron” and one reads, “Cleveland & Philly, You Can’t Compete with L.A.” The season-ticket holder said he also might buy some for Oklahoma City forward Paul George.

James called these signs “flattering,” “cool” and “dope” but also said, “The story needs to be: LeBron is focused on getting his team back to the Finals. That’s what the story should be.”

Waiting on a billboard for Houston now. The Rockets have been rumored to be the front-runners for James if he bolts Cleveland.

Fast breaks

- The Knicks will hold their first-ever Pride Night Tuesday when the Mavericks visit the Garden.

- All five opening-night starters for the Knicks’ G League team are currently in the NBA. Trey Burke, Luke Kornet and Isaiah Hicks are with the Knicks. Nigel Hayes and Xavier Rathan-Mayes signed 10-day contracts this past week with Toronto and Memphis, respectively.

- Onetime Knicks Derrick Rose and Derrick Williams resurfaced in the NBA this past week. Rose, who started the season with Cleveland, was traded to Utah and was waived before reuniting with his former Bulls coach, Tom Thibodeau. Rose signed with Minnesota for the rest of the season. Williams, who played in China this season, signed a 10-day deal with the Lakers.

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