PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - FEBRUARY 22: Josh Hart #3 and Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks look on during the third quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on February 22, 2024 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) Credit: Getty Images/Tim Nwachukwu


It was a few hours before the Knicks would take the court at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and Josh Hart assured the assembled media of one thing — he wasn’t going to spend his night chasing Tyrese Maxey around the court.

“That’s not me. We got Donte DiVincenzo for that,” Hart said. “Me, I don’t really care. I like going against tough matchups. I like those kind of things. But if there’s guys who do it better than me, cool, that means I’m second or third option. I feel like I can definitely guard those guys. I don’t think you’re going to see me chasing these little dudes around. I got a height limit. We’ll see. I like the challenge.”

He was reminded that he took on the assignment of defending Donovan Mitchell in the playoffs last season, but he noted, “That was pre-free agency. Now my height limit is 6-4.”

A follower of Hart’s gripes and jokes will note that he also has spent time arguing that he is not a power forward and doesn’t want to guard anyone over about 6-7. But that is part of the Hart mystique, one that has emerged in extended public appearances as he has started a podcast with Jalen Brunson — The Roommates Show.

But the thing is, when the laughter is done, Hart does exactly what he says he would not do and does it well, scrambling around the court to exhaustion, covering the toughest perimeter player on most nights and fighting with bigger players in the paint.

So as you might expect, midway through the first quarter Thursday, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau switched up the assignments and Hart chased Maxey around the court, diving on the floor for loose balls and helping the Knicks to a much-needed win.

“Is Josh always like that? No,” Brunson said of the complaining. “But I think he just talks the talk, if that makes sense. He’s like a — I’m going to be nice — he says whatever he wants to say, but when he goes out there, when it’s time to compete, it doesn’t matter who is in front of him.”

“I was not expecting to guard Tyrese Maxey,” Hart said Friday, a day after playing 44 minutes in the 110-96 win. “I’m not going to lie, I felt old yesterday, man. My body was — he was a little too fast for me. You saw he blew right past me.

“Me and Thibs, we got our way of communicating. The thing with me and Thibs, he knows whatever he asks me to do, I’m going to go out there and do it. I’m not going to shortchange it. And I think that’s the benefit of having a good relationship with your coach where it’s, he might not want to do something, but if it’s something the team needs and he asks me to do it, he has trust in me that I’m going to do it. Wasn’t thinking about guarding Tyrese, because I hate guarding those 5-2 and under, short, fast, explosive dudes. But he made that switch. And I’m like, I’m going to go out there and I’m going to try. So that’s me.”

Thibodeau said of Hart, “He’s a quirky guy. The thing — you just love what he brings to the team. He’s authentic. A genuine guy. Plays as hard as he can on every possession. You can’t ask for anything more . . .  He’s unique in the sense that he’s one of a kind.”

When it was pointed out that it might be best for a coach to have just one, Thibodeau laughed and refocused the talk on what Hart brings when the game starts.

"He brings a lot to the team,” he said. “A lot of the things that he does aren’t measured statistically. They’re just fly all over the place, hustle, get to loose balls, hit the open man. And oftentimes he’s not getting the assist but he’s making the play. So those toughness plays, it gives your team heart. His defense is really tough. And I think that’s huge for our team.”

History repeating

I was fortunate enough — and old enough — to have covered Drazen Petrovic’s seasons with the Nets before his tragic and untimely death in 1993. Petrovic, in a time when European players who weren’t 7-2 were still an anomaly, proved himself to be a prolific scorer, one of the best shooters in the NBA and a bit of a character — well-liked by his teammates and a blast to cover.

Most memorable might be the last day of the 1991-92 season when he was in striking distance of the NBA lead for three-point percentage and was running by the media seated courtside, asking us how many more he needed to convert to win the title (he would fall just short and finish second).

His performance, first in Europe and then in the NBA, made him a national hero in Croatia. More than 30 years later, you can see the influence he had on players such as Bojan Bogdanovic — the lightning-quick release on his three-point shot and the uncanny accuracy, as evidenced by his 6-for-6 effort from three-point range Thursday to help the Knicks beat Philadelphia.

“He is a hero to every Croatian player,” said Bogdanovic, who added that he will take part in an exhibition back home paying tribute to Petrovic in September.

For now, though, before worrying about exhibitions or Olympic spots, he is trying to help the Knicks to the finish line — happy to be out of Detroit, where he toiled for a last-place team after spending nearly every other season of his career in the playoffs.

“Just great to be on a team where every game — I don’t wanna say that in Detroit we didn’t value the game, but here is like every game counts,” Bogdanovic said. “Like, winning in Philly, they’re right behind us. So, I mean, it counts for playoff position, and it’s fun. It’s fun to be a part of the group that are winning and actually play unselfish.”

While the Knicks entered the trade deadline seeking help at the backup point guard spot, adding Bogdanovic to the deal provides a veteran scorer as an outlet for Brunson. Bogdanovic often settles in one corner with DiVincenzo in the other, giving Brunson shooters to burn the traps and blitzes that teams are throwing at him.

“I know how good he is and probably every other team is gonna do what Philly was doing, either blitzing him or doubling him right out of the gate,” Bogdanovic said. “So he’s doing what not a lot of stars are willing to do, giving up the ball whenever he is blitzed. That’s great for all of us in showing how unselfish he is and how much he cares about our team’s success.

“I was always a shooter, even in Europe. So here, just like I said, playing with better players, you’re gonna have better-quality shots.”

“He’s a gifted scorer,” Thibodeau said. “We saw the post-up, too. He can get it up quick and he can put it on the floor, too, so if you close hard on him, he has different finishes at the basket. So he scores a lot of different ways, and I think that’s a big asset for us. And you can play him at small forward or power forward, so when we needed more spacing when they went with the double-teaming, we didn’t need two bigs, we had shooting on the floor and the playmaking. And that’s what Josh gives you is you can run offense through him and leave Jalen on the back side.''

No rest for the weary

Brunson had 21 points and 12 assists Thursday but struggled through a 5-for-18 shooting night with a career worst-matching seven turnovers in his first game back from All-Star Weekend, a whirlwind of events that was just the latest thing on his plate.

Brunson led the Knicks to the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, then was part of Team USA in the summer and then, after carrying a huge workload in the first 55 games of the season, participated in his first All-Star Game while some players were off to the beach.

“Those things are all honors,” Brunson said. “Playing for Team USA is an honor. Being named an All-Star is an honor. So you work very hard for those moments. So no matter what the actual situation is, you can't say, 'Well, I don't get a break.' Well, you're working hard to achieve your goals, so whatever the situation is, you can only control what you can control, so that's all I care about.”

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