During this set of games against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Mavericks are playing against one of the NBA’s premier sixth men in Lou Williams.

He’s won the league’s sixth-man award three times, most recently in 2018-19.

He’s proof that if that, with the right attitude, a sixth man can flourish professionally – and financially.

Tim Hardaway Jr. is transitioning into that role for the Mavericks, although coach Rick Carlisle has never been scared to tweak the starting lineup. He wouldn’t think twice about reinserting Hardaway with the starters if it would help the Mavericks win more games.

But at this point, the Mavericks need Hardaway coming off the bench, which he’s done in 20 of the 37 games he’s played, including the last 18 in a row.

His numbers have been virtually identical as a starter and a reserve with two exceptions: he’s playing about six fewer minutes per game, and he’s hitting a much higher percentage of his 3-point shots, 40.5 percent.

In short, his efficiency has improved and, not coincidentally, so has the Mavericks’ record. They are 14-6 when Hardaway has come off the bench.

The most important element of this strategy is that Hardaway not just accept the role, but embrace and cherish it. And, truth be known, he’s at the perfect time in his career to make the sixth-man role his calling card.

Allow Clippers’ coach Tyronn Lue to explain.

“I think young kids that are ready to be a starter, I think it’s harder (for them) to go to the bench,” Lue said. “But once you get older, more guys are able to accept it.

“It kind of depends on what stage of your career you’re in. Have you got your big contract yet or not? A lot of things go into it.”

Hardaway already has had a lottery-style contract, signing a four-year, $71-million deal with New York in 2017. That contract expires after this season and the 6-6 swingman will be in line for another nice payday, especially with the way he is flourishing in the sixth-man role.

“He’s been a big key to our turnaround since we were kind of in a difficult period before we got the win in Atlanta (in early February),” Carlisle said Tuesday. “So my hat’s off to him. It’s not an easy job. But I’ve seen some great players with the right approach be phenomenally effective for this team, going back to Jason Terry and Vince Carter and now you’ve got Tim Hardaway. It’s very much appreciated by everyone here.”

The way the Mavericks now use Hardaway has become a consistent weapon for them. He almost always comes into the game at the first timeout about five or six minutes into the game.

He’s averaging about 27 minutes, which is down from 33 as a starter. But he’s been more of a focal point at times than he was as a starter.

And he’s usually on the court when it comes time to finish close games. His team-first attitude has made Hardaway one of Carlisle’s favorite topics in interview sessions. He tells the story of how he went to Miami in the summer of 2019 to gauge Hardaway’s level of comfort with the sixth-man role.

It didn’t work out that season. The best thing for the team in that situation was for Hardaway to start. He also started this season in the lineup, but when the Mavericks got Kristaps Porzingis back, as well as the flock of players who had to sit out weeks with COVID-19 protocols, it was time to revisit the sixth-man idea.

“I called (Tim) and said, hey, Maxi (Kleber) is coming back,” Carlisle recalled. “And he goes: coach, you don’t have to say anything. I’m good. I’ll play off the bench. And at the time we were four or five games under .500. The team was struggling and he said: Look, we need to get going. I’m going to do whatever I can. And he was great. His willingness not only to accept, but to embrace the challenge of being the sixth man goes a long way toward how well guys perform in that situation. And he’s performed phenomenally well.

“Tim is a great team guy. He’s one of our leaders. And he’s a fiery, intense competitor. But really, he’s all about winning.”

Which might be the most important trait of a high-quality sixth man.

Johnson to miss three more games: Forward James Johnson has been in Wyoming tending to a family situation and will miss at least the next three games, Carlisle said.

Johnson was heading back to Dallas on Tuesday, but because of safety protocols, he will not be allowed to rejoin the team immediately.

“He left Denver (after Saturday’s win) and drove to Wyoming to tend to a personal family situation,” Carlisle said. “He is on his way back to Dallas.

“He’s entered COVID protocols simply because he has to test back into our internal situation. And that takes a number of tests and a number of days. He will not join us in Portland (Friday and Sunday). There’s a chance he could join us in Minnesota (on March 24), depending on the testing. But there’s no positive test or anything like this. This is just part of the safety procedures.”

Start ‘em up: Monday was the second time in a row they fell behind by 10 or more points in the first quarter.

On Saturday against Denver, they recovered. On Monday against the Clippers, they did not.

“We’ve got to start the game better,” Carlisle said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have a big lead or win the quarter. But we’ve got to avoid 10-plus point deficits in the first quarter.

“That gets you digging out of a hole and over 48 minutes, as we demonstrated last night, we got the lead a few times, but you spend so much energy trying to dig out of the hole that it’s hard to sustain it. So a better job from the very beginning to the very end is certainly very key.”

Twitter: @ESefko

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