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Whether or not Tim Hardaway Jr. can maintain his career season is the most important question facing the Mavericks

The starting shooting guard has been a key part of the Mavericks success this season, and will be important in their return.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It was just the ninth game of the season, early November, against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Mavericks had just embarrassed themselves at home against the New York Knicks the night before, and desperately needed to repair and regroup.

Tim Hardaway Jr. was coming off the bench, yet to have an opportunity at a starting spot alongside Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, even as Rick Carlisle had been playing an early season round of rotational musical chairs.

No one had played well the night before at the American Airlines Center, Hardaway included. Fulfilling the prophecy that yes, in fact, “Shooters gonna shoot”, he connected on just three of his ten attempts from deep in the loss to the Knicks. But as the other cliche goes, shooters also need a short memory. Hardaway bounced back quite nicely that night in Memphis, going 5-of-9 from three and scoring 20 points in just 22 minutes.

It became a microcosm for the expectations of Hardaway’s fit in Dallas. Always playing with confidence, pushing through the cold games, Hardaway proved he could long as he could keep hitting.

That night still did not earn him a spot in the starting lineup. It took five more games —ironically after a matchup against the San Antonio Spurs where Hardaway had zero points in 15 minutes — but he seized the starting opportunity. He posted another 20-point game, going 4-of-4 from three. Hardaway started the remaining 50 games he appeared in this season.

Players and coaches will be facing unprecedented challenges in their return to play in Orlando. While the primary concern must be for the health and safety of everyone involved, players will be trying to also tap back into a season already in existence.

Having in essence a full off-season away just to pick up right before the playoffs is absurd in concept. And for players like Hardaway, in the midst of a career season, the question of how to regain the momentum is monumental.

“In my eyes everybody is zero-zero at this point. Everybody’s been sitting out,” Hardaway said to reporters last week in a virtual press conference. For many teams and players, that idea can be used to their advantage. Everyone will be working with the same obstacles, and teams that can overcome those quickest will likely be most effective in the restart.

“So, it may take a couple games, it may not take a couple games, but I know I’ve been getting a whole lot of reps up and made sure I stayed in the gym as much as I could,” Hardaway assured, then reiterated, “I just tried to make sure this cannon is still able to resume its time when it gets back, when the season gets back.”

Among players that attempted at least 400 three pointers this season, Hardaway comes in at sixth on the list in percentage, shooting nearly 41 percent on 455 attempts. But even that does not tell the whole story of his success this season.

After taking on a full time starting role, things started clicking for Hardaway, and Carlisle’s job got slightly easier. In those 50 games he reinforced his cannon and hit 43-percent from deep, on nearly eight attempts per game.

The beauty of the Dallas Mavericks this season has been their ability to utilize a crew of support players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently said on an episode of The Lowe Post podcast that the Mavericks have a bunch of guys that are fifth starters. And while that may not win a championship, it could make them a handful for someone in the playoffs.

But even with a corral of fifth starters, things undoubtedly started locking into place once Hardaway solidified his role as Luka’s sharp-shooter. Doncic, and in turn the Mavericks, are only truly humming when Doncic has a few reliable shooters to kick to as he creates. Hardaway has done just that, connecting on 43 percent of his five catch-and-shoot attempts each game.

Dallas Mavericks v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

If Hardaway has trouble finding his rhythm in Orlando, the Mavericks do have some luck in also deploying Seth Curry alongside him. Curry, who is shooting 44 percent from three on the season (and 48 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts), has started in just 20 of his 59 games. Nelson indicated recently that Curry would be returning to the starting group, giving the Mavericks a lethal duo surrounding Doncic.

While that will give the team a cushion, they were at their best when Hardaway has been connecting, forcing opponents to chase the Mavericks around the perimeter. The success of this team felt fragile entering the season, knowing that players were being forced to play up a spot or two in the rotation.

Hardaway was suddenly thrust into a faux-third scorer role by game 14 — and to his credit, he stepped up and never looked back. And whether or not he can find that rhythm in Orlando may determine how successful the Mavericks will be.