Before talks regarding his unrestricted free agency begin with the Dallas Mavericks, Tim Hardaway Jr. wants to make one thing perfectly clear.

He absolutely loves playing for the Mavs and living in Dallas.

“If you were to talk to anybody in this organization and anybody that’s around me every single day all the time, they would definitely say that I love it here,” Hardaway said. “Regardless of if I was coming off the bench or if I was starting, I really felt like this was home for me and I really felt like I had created a niche for myself here to be a part of something bigger – bigger than myself.”

That being said, Hardaway is looking forward to free agency, which officially starts on Aug. 2. And the Mavs have made it clear that re-signing the small forward is one of their top offseason priorities.

Donnie Nelson, the Mavs’ president of basketball operations, said of Hardaway: “Tim, like his dad (Tim Hardaway Sr.), is the consummate ultimate professional. Tim is such a passionate winner, and sometimes those emotions can get the best of him.

“I think this year he really took a step in maturity and was able to capture that.”

Hardaway’s maturity was on full display when, before the Jan. 4 game at Houston, coach Rick Carlisle met with him about removing him from the starting lineup and having him come off the bench. Instead of pouting about his status as a life-long starter in the NBA, Hardaway was eloquent and accepted the demotion as a positive that could invariably help the Mavs in the long run.

“I think what I would takeaway is just that meeting I had with coach Carlisle and him coming up to me and letting me know what was best for the team and so on and so forth, and me letting him know that just whatever I need to do for this team to win,” Hardaway said. “If you need me to come off the bench, I would do that. If you need me to start, I’ll do that as well.

“I think that right there was one of the turning points of the season for me as an individual. Just being able to be a man about it and sacrifice whatever I had to do in order for this team to be successful on my part, and putting the team first instead of me. So I think that was definitely one of the key factors that I look back on.”

In his first game off the bench against Houston, Hardaway played 31 minutes, tallied 30 points, grabbed seven rebounds and was 11-of-14 from the field and 8-of-10 from behind the 3-point line. He also scored seven points during a key 14-3 spurt late in the game that helped the Mavs pull away and defeat the Rockets, 113-100.

Hardaway’s job coming off the bench lasted until he started 11 of his last 13 regular season games. He also was in the starting lineup for the Mavs’ seven playoff games against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Hardaway, who finished fifth in the NBA Sixth Man Award balloting this season, whiffed on if being a permanent starter will be one of his demands during contract negotiations. Yet he did admit what was obvious to anyone who was paying close attention this season.

“If I were to look back on the season I think being a starter, that’s where I’m more comfortable at,” said Hardaway, who poured in a career-high 42 points during an April 29 contest at Detroit. “I think I’ve shown that this year throughout the year, and that’s what I’m going to try to look forward to in the near future.

“I feel like I think I’ve made my niche as a starting shooting guard/small forward – whatever they’ve got me listed as. Yeah, I think I’ve created that niche that I am a starter.”

Overall this season, Hardaway averaged 16.6 points and shot 44.7 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from 3-point land. In 31 starts he averaged 18.6 points and shot 45 percent from the floor and 39.8 percent from behind the 3-point one, and in 39 games off the bench he averaged 15.1 points and converted 44.4 percent of his field goals and 38.5 percent of his 3-point shots.

Also, one year after making 204 baskets from 3-point territory, Hardaway made 207 shots from downtown this season. The only other Mavs player with more than 200 of those in a season is George McCloud, who converted 257 treys in 1995-96.

But despite playing a team-high 70 games this year, this season had its challenges for Hardaway and his teammates. At the top of the list was trying to meticulous tip-toe through this season with a large amount of games bunched together in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic.

“It was tough, it was a lot of sacrifice, a lot of things that we had to do as ball players and as a staff,” Hardaway said. “To not see your loved ones and not be around family as much, and not be around your friends as much, and testing every day, staying inside, only ordering food at certain places.

“So it was just tough to be able to go out there and compete, but also not have that freedom to leave your (hotel) room. Yeah, it was tough for the most part, but at the same time you’re doing what you love. You’re going out there and competing on the biggest stage in the world, so that really trumps everything. Hopefully the NBA doesn’t have to experience anything like that again, and not only for us but for the whole NBA.”

Hardaway also doesn’t want the Mavs to experience anything like they did this season in the playoffs against the Clippers when they won the first two games of that best-of-seven series on the road, lost the next two at home, won Game 5 on the road, and then dropped the last two games and the series.

So how close are the Mavs to winning not one, but multiple playoff series in the same postseason?

“I think first and foremost, you don’t want to look too far into the future,” Hardaway said. “You want to stay in the present – that’s first and foremost – and be in the now. Right now, for the most part we just want to reflect on what we did wrong (against the Clippers) and realize what we need to get better as a team and as a whole and move on from there.

“It’s not going to be easy. If it was easy everybody would be able to do it. The front office and the coaching staff, they have a hard job, they have a hard task at managing people’s minutes, managing people’s time out there on the floor and just being able to try to make everybody happy through the situation. But it’s tough.”

Hardaway made $18,975,000 this season. Who knows where his salary will be going forward.

But one thing’s for sure: The 6-5, 205-pound eight-year veteran was such a hard-nosed player that he worked his way into being an important asset for the Mavs to the point where he may wind up making an exorbitant amount of money.

“The fact that he was willing to – whether it’s sixth man or start – do what’s in the best interest of the team, it just shows the kind of person he is,” Nelson said. “(He’s) a really good fit for Luka (Doncic) and Kristaps (Porzingis).”

Hardaway and Porzingis were teammates with the New York Knicks from 2017 until both were traded to the Mavs on Jan. 31, 2019.

“He and Kristaps have a terrific relationship going all the way back to New York,” Nelson said. “I think there’s some real chemistry there between (Doncic, Porzingis and Hardaway). We’re obviously looking forward at the appropriate time to sitting down with (Hardaway’s) representation.”

It’s a meeting Hardaway will be glad when it’s over.

“That’s what agents are for,” Hardaway said of the meeting with Mavs management in regards to his free agency. “I’m just really, really focusing on being around my teammates, being with my teammates, going out there competing each and every day – whether it’s practice or in a game. I want to take this time to reflect on everything, relax, take my mind off of basketball just for a little bit and come back to that topic.

“I just want to just go out there and just give that tenacity, give that energy, give that effort for the fans. That’s who I play for. I play for them, I play for my family and I play for the love of the game.”

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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