Knicks guard Josh Hart reacts after sinking a three-point basket...

Knicks guard Josh Hart reacts after sinking a three-point basket in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When the NBA trade deadline passed on Thursday, it was easy to wonder why the Knicks didn’t swing for the fences and make a run at the elusive star talent they’ve been chasing.

Instead, they filled in at the margins, fortifying their bench with a defensive-minded player in Josh Hart.

It might seem like a Band-Aid on a franchise that has been bleeding out for a long time, but it also might be just what the team needed.

The Knicks aren’t title contenders right now. Shoving all their chips — or draft picks and young talent — into the center of the table to chase someone such as Toronto’s OG Anunoby likely still would leave them a level below the likes of Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference.

But in its first test Saturday — a 126-120 win over Utah — the acquisition of Hart proved to be the sort of seamless continuation of what the Knicks have done right this season, the sort of push forward that could put them in the playoffs and not just the play-in tournament.

“[Whatever] the team needs, he’s willing to fill that,” said Jalen Brunson, who won a national championship in college at Villanova alongside Hart. “He’s always been that player. He’s unselfish. Like I’ve said, he’s a dude that just wants to win, who will do whatever it takes to win, and I think that fits perfectly because we have a lot of guys on this team that have the same mindset and we have a coach who has that mindset. So putting all the pieces together and we’ll continue to get better, but I think this is a great first day for him. He’s only going to continue to thrive.”

“The first game, you’ve just got to go out there and play basketball,” Hart said of his 11-point, seven-rebound, four-steal, four-assist performance.

“I think that was the biggest thing. The way this team plays, the way Coach coaches, it’s freedom in a controlled environment. I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s good, quality basketball and you’ve got unselfish guys. That’s the biggest thing. So me being able to jump in there, everything just felt like it formed well.”

Hart is on his fourth team in six seasons. He has never carried the sort of potential that Cam Reddish, given up in the trade with Portland, had when he entered the NBA four years ago. But Reddish has never realized his potential, the reason he is on his third team.

When Tom Thibodeau pulled Reddish from the rotation in early December, that signaled a turning point for the team, putting pieces in place who are defense-first players.

Quentin Grimes went into the starting lineup, more playing time for Immanuel Quickley arrived and Deuce McBride was inserted into the rotation. While the absence of Mitchell Robinson, who will be sidelined until at least after the All-Star break, has hurt the defense and rebounding, the direction of the team has been made clear. And that’s where Hart comes in.

“I think the thing is, and you can see it, you look at the offensive rebounding, the defensive rebounding, four steals, his anticipation in the way he reads the ball, and he’s quick,” Thibodeau said.

“He’s real quick to the ball, and a lot of that is toughness and competitiveness. And sometimes I don’t think we put enough stock in that, and it’s critical to winning — how hard a guy will sprint back in defensive transition. Is he willing to go to the floor to get a ball? Will he stick his nose in and battle two or three big guys and come up with it? He’s always around the ball, and I think that’s what makes him so valuable.”

While some teams still may be trying to find themselves, the Knicks (31-27) seem to know what they are now, and Thibodeau’s teams historically have played better as the season wears on.

The Knicks sit in seventh place, three games behind the fifth-place Nets and four games ahead of 11th-place Chicago.

“Every win counts, man,” RJ Barrett said, repeating the mantra that Thibodeau has infused in the team. “Every win counts as the season is starting to wind down a little bit. These little wins matter.”


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