Knicks forward Julius Randle and guard Josh Hart react as...

Knicks forward Julius Randle and guard Josh Hart react as the clock runs out against the Denver Nuggets in the second half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, March 18, 2023.  Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Josh Hart said that with his physicality, he probably should have been a football player. And on Monday, before the streaking Knicks took on the Timberwolves, he walked into the Garden wearing a Yankees jersey. But when Tom Thibodeau thinks about the trade acquisition that has worked out well so far, he sees one thing and one thing only.

“I don't know what he is other than a good basketball player,” Thibodeau said.

And though Thibodeau demurred on defining Hart’s role beyond that, one thing has been abundantly clear these last few weeks — the swingman’s defensive aptitude has made him a key cog in the fourth quarter. So, baseball player? No. But closer? Well, if the jersey fits . . . 

“I’m just, how I play is physical. It’s like a bull in a China shop kind of thing,” Hart said after the Knicks’ win over the Western Conference-leading Nuggets Saturday. “I feel like I probably would have been a good — put on some weight — a good D-end or something, linebacker. I kind of like physicality.”

It goes beyond that, though. Hart’s been impressive enough that he’s taken minutes that used to belong to Quentin Grimes and sometimes, RJ Barrett — the latter of whom is having a late-season renaissance. And far more than brute force, Hart’s court IQ and playmaking ability has helped the Knicks execute when it counts. Since joining the team on Feb. 9, he’s averaging 11.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.3 steals, and is shooting 59.8% from the floor while coming off the bench.

“I’ve talked often about his playmaking ability, whether you're asking him to guard, he can guard every position on the floor,” Thibodeau said. “You need a big shot, you need a steal, you need a rebound. You need a pass, a decision that's made quickly. Oftentimes he's running and we got him with the ball and he's making decisions with the ball. So just kind of do the things that you do.”

He's also got Thibodeau’s favorite quality — a single-minded goal that extends beyond personal success.

“He impacts winning, all the intangibles that he brings to the game, and there's no agenda other than winning,” Thibodeau said. “That's what I love about him. If you're open, you're getting the ball, that doesn't matter who it is. He makes quick decisions. He has the ability to think on his feet. I think those things are critical.

No wonder, either. In his six years in the league, Hart hasn’t so much as sniffed the playoffs. That drought is all but guaranteed to end over the next three weeks, as the Knicks went into Monday as the current five seed, with plenty of wiggle room over the Nets and the Heat.

“Most wins I’ve had in six years so I’m enjoying it,” Hart said. “I think we’re all enjoying it. But like I said, we’re not complacent. I think that’s the biggest thing with this team, that we have toughness. We have resilience and great leadership and that’s one of the biggest things is we've got to take that all the way through to the end of the season.”

That shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Hart is establishing himself as quite the closer, after all.


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