Josh Hart didn’t really need to introduce himself with a long description — not with six years in the NBA and a body of work that was impressive enough for the Knicks to put a first-round pick on the table to bring him to Madison Square Garden. But with every word he spoke before the game, he endeared himself a little more to Tom Thibodeau.
And when the game began, he showed it wasn’t just talk. All the words he spoke — blue collar, defense, dirty work and hustle — were on display.
Hart entered the game with 4:26 left in the third quarter and — despite a limited playbook — remained in the game down to the final buzzer, coming up with the sort of plays that won’t make a top 10 highlight reel but do help win a game, a clear path to the coach’s heart.
Midway through the fourth quarter, he hit a three-pointer to snap a tie, but it wasn’t the shot as much as the little things. Jalen Brunson broke a tie with a three-pointer, and on the Knicks’ next possession, Hart fought for an offensive rebound and found RJ Barrett for a corner three-pointer. With the game still in doubt, Hart sank another three and finished with 11 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals in 25:39 to help the Knicks beat the Utah Jazz, 126-120, at the Garden.
The fit in New York didn’t seem to be a problem. He shook hands with Spike Lee at the start of the fourth quarter and earned an ovation from the Garden crowd as he was interviewed on the court after the game, with Brunson leading the cheers.
Brunson had 38 points and five assists, Julius Randle scored 31 points and Barrett added 20 for the Knicks (31-27).
Hart made his Knicks debut with 2:54 left in the first quarter and it took just 36 seconds for Brunson to find him on a fast break for a layup. Before the quarter was over, Hart returned the favor and found Brunson for a three. The fit was smooth and did nothing to deter from the production the Knicks have gotten from scoring leaders Randle and Brunson.
As he readied for his Knicks debut with an early evening news conference Saturday, Hart was asked about the last time he was at the Garden — when the 6-4 wing pulled down an astounding 19 rebounds.
“I should have had 20. I fouled out,” Hart said. “ . . . So I’m a guy that’s going to bring it every night. I’m a guy that’s going to be physical. I’m a guy that’s going to do the dirty work. Going to rebound, going to defend. Get on the floor for a loose ball and do those kind of things.
“I feel like that style fits every team, especially a New York team. That’s what this city is about and what the city builds off of. I take that with pride. I’m just a blue-collar guy; I think that’s really going to work well here.”
It’s almost as if you could see Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, Patrick Ewing and John Starks standing behind him as he spoke. None of them was present, but he soon would be reporting in to Thibodeau. The Knicks’ coach longs for that sort of player — defense first, grit above glamour.
While Hart, who started 51 games for the Portland Trail Blazers before the trade, is likely to continue to come off the bench, those hard-nosed characteristics provide the fit the Knicks sought.
Sent out in the trade was Cam Reddish, who some in the organization considered the best athlete on the team. But Reddish was buried on the bench because despite his made-in-a-lab frame and skill set, his motor and mindset didn’t mesh with Thibodeau’s.
So Hart, who won a national championship at Villanova with Brunson, was brought in. And although he can opt out of his contract, he sounded enthusiastic that after playing for four teams in six seasons, he finally is home.
“For sure. Obviously on the court, there’s a lot of things I’m excited about, with teammates and Thibs and the front office I’m familiar with,” said Hart, who was teammates with Randle on the Lakers at the start of his career. “The organization, and even off the court.
“I’m close to family. My wife is pregnant, so we’ll have a couple little ones running around. Not running, but just around, and it’ll be great to have family close by and those kinds of things. So it works well on and off the court.
“It’s definitely somewhere that I would definitely like to be. Like I said, it’s my third time getting traded, sixth year in the league, fourth team, sixth head coach. It’s been a whirlwind. I didn’t think that was how my first six years were going to be, but I’m looking for a home, and I think this could be it.”