As Luka Dončić came back Tuesday from a three-game injury absence, the Mavericks were hopeful that some other things would return, too.

Like the versatility that has been a staple for Tim Hardaway Jr.

While Hardaway’s calling card is 3-point shooting, he’s always had the ability to mix in slithery moves to the basket that either finish with two points or two free throws.

Hardaway still is averaging more 3-pointers per game (7.2) than shots from inside the arc, less than five. What has changed is that the 6-5 guard has made only 44.7 percent of his 2-point shots. That’s by far the lowest efficiency from close range compared to his first three seasons with the Mavericks.

Because his 3-point shooting is such a dangerous weapon, opponents often overplay Hardaway. That gives him chances inside the arc. Without taking advantage of that option, his productivity has dipped, albeit only slightly, during the first month of the season.

“We just talked about it, the last couple days, about getting to the rim,” coach Jason Kidd said. “Not so use the midrange or the three. But get to the rim, get to the free-throw line.

“We do need to get him into the paint attacking the rim. He did do that last year.”

To that end, Hardaway’s first bucket Tuesday against the Los Angeles Clippers came when he faked a 3-pointer and slipped in for an 18-foot jumper. Both of his first-half baskets came from inside the 3-point arc (on four attempts).

Part of the allure of penetration is getting to the free-throw line. The Mavericks are fifth-lowest in the NBA in free throws attempted. And trips to the stripe are down for virtually all teams this season, thanks to new defensive rules.

Hardaway came into Tuesday’s game averaging just 2.4 free throws per game.

That’s basically Hardaway’s career average. But the Mavericks are hoping that Hardaway and everybody else can provide an uptick in free throws.

Misery loves company: The Mavericks have struggled without Dončić in the past two seasons, going 2-7 in games that he’s missed, including 0-3 without him for the past week before he returned Tuesday.

The 2-7 mark isn’t great, but it’s the sort of record that most teams have when they lose their superstar.

Golden State was 2-7 without Steph Curry last season.

In the past two seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers are 16-21 in games that LeBron James has missed.

But great players find ways to have an impact, even when they aren’t playing, Kidd said.

“An extra set of eyes, a high basketball IQ and seeing what the defense or offense is doing,” Kidd said of what Luka is able to do while on the bench. Dončić has said he tries to be as much of an assistant coach as he can be.

“To be able to communicate with your teammates shows a high level of caring and still participating and trying to help in any way possible to help us win,” Kidd said. “He does say things during timeouts, will walk by and give some ideas of what we can do.

“It’s been helpful. For a 22-year-old to be able to do those things is pretty impressive. He’s taken this upon himself to do. And I think it’s great leadership for our team.”

Lue’s vivid memory of Dirk: Clippers’ coach Tyronn Lue had a brief stay with the Mavericks as a player in 2007-08.

He said one of the lasting memories was about Dirk Nowitzki. As the Mavericks’ legend was named one of the 75 greatest players in NBA history as part of the 75th anniversary of the league.

“I played with him for a short stint,” Lue said Tuesday. “And just seeing his preparation and everything he did – he had a lot of crazy shooting drills he used to do to get ready and get prepared.”

Lue was in the same draft class (1998) as Nowitzki. Lue was the 23rd overall pick, Nowitzki ninth.

“One of the greatest power forwards ever to play this game,” Lue said. “To see the player he became was unbelievable. But it was all dedicated to hard work. Phenomenal player.”

Briefly: The Mavericks got more bad news on the injury front Tuesday when Jalen Brunson hurt his left foot late in the first half. He left the court with a significant limp. He did not return . . . Frank Ntilikina (right calf injury) and Reggie Bullock (non-COVID illness) both missed Tuesday’s game . . . The Mavericks were scheduled to take Wednesday and Thursday for their Thanksgiving break. They’ll return to practice Friday ahead of Saturday’s home game against the surprising Washington Wizards, who have charged to an 11-6 record.

Twitter: @ESefko

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