The Mavericks knew coming into this season that they had a budding superstar in Luka Doncic, who quickly lost the “budding” part of that description.

They also thought they had a legitimate lieutenant, an able sidekick in Kristaps Porzingis, who they expected to mesh perfectly with Doncic.

What they weren’t sure of is if anybody on the roster was capable of being third in command.

As the season begins its NASCAR stretch, swerving through the final 20-odd games with bumper-to-bumper action between teams angling for playoff positioning, the Mavericks have seen Tim Hardaway Jr. emerge as that legitimate third contributor.

He has been a constant since the calendar flipped to 2020 and he’s been even more reliable lately.

Over the last five games, the 6-5 shooting guard has averaged 24.8 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists. He’s also shot 47.8 percent from 3-point range.

Doncic missed two of those games and Porzingis missed one of them. But Hardaway has been consistent throughout the last two months, averaging 17.4 points per game since Jan. 1.

What’s brought on the uptick?

“Just around this time of the year, I’m feeling good, playing free now, knowing where your shots are going to come, when to be aggressive, when to take some of the load off of KP and Luka,” Hardaway said. “I’m just trying to be that guy that they can trust out there on the floor. I’m here to make their life easier.”

Trust, perhaps the most vital ingredient in a team building chemistry, doesn’t happen overnight. But the Mavericks look like a team that is convinced that Hardaway can be the third option and handle that job perfectly.

He has been an absolute drop-dead shooter, trailing only Seth Curry in 3-point accuracy among Mavericks with at least 100 attempts this season.

And it hasn’t just been at the offensive end of the floor.

Hardaway has become one of the Mavericks’ best defenders. On Monday against Minnesota, he started the game guarding D’Angelo Russell, pretty much the only Timberwolves player who posed a serious offensive threat.

“Tim is about the right stuff,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “He is a culture guy, he gets onto teammates, and he cares. Guys like him aren’t growing on trees.

“I just love the way he plays. He goes hard, he cares about winning, and he is one of our leaders. You saw at the beginning of the (Minnesota) game he was guarding the best player. He has had a great year.”

For the season, he’s averaging 15.3 points and is shooting 40.8 percent from 3-point range. And remember, this is a season that began with him coming off the bench in an experiment that ultimately didn’t work, but which Hardaway was OK with trying.

And while his scoring is what fans focus on, it’s his defense that has been Hardaway’s primary focus.

“Coach Mose (defensive coordinator Jamahl Mosley) and all the assistants have given me an opportunity to guard one of the best players on the opposing teams,” Hardaway said. “It takes a lot of load off of Doe-Doe (Dorian Finney-Smith). I’m happy to take that challenge.”

The Mavericks are hitting the road for four games starting Wednesday in San Antonio. It’s the kind of stretch where they know they can make some headway in the standings. Three of the games are against losing teams. And they have an exemplary 19-9 record on the road.

At home, they haven’t been nearly as sharp with a 16-14 record. But for Hardaway, the venues haven’t mattered. He’s averaged over 15 points per game both at home and on the road.

“I was just happy that we were able to win here at home,” he said of Monday’s win over Minnesota, which gave the Mavericks a modest two-game home winning streak. “We know we’re not going to be here for another week or so. We’re not done yet. We still got 11 home games left. We’re going to try to do as much as we can to win all of them.

“We know we’re a really good, solid road team. At home, we got to give our fans something to cheer about. And we know that.”

That chance will come later. For now, it’s time to hit the road, and that’s a good thing for Hardaway and his teammates.

Twitter: @ESefko

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