Jalen Brunson is the straw that stirs the drink for the New York Knicks. My mea culpa on his free agency will come at a later date. All of that being said, the Knicks were in the Play-in Tournament and their record was a mere three games over .500 on Feb. 10. On that date they lost to the Philadelphia 76ers one day after trading for Josh Hart.
In a Sunday matinee performance on Broadway at Madison Square Garden, 2023 All Star Julius Randle — who is dealing with an ankle injury — did not leave the bench the entire fourth quarter. Brunson and R.J. Barrett dazzled, but Hart’s timely plays were crucial in helping lift the Knicks to a 3-1 series lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hart scored all eight of his second-half points in the fourth quarter, and he also grabbed two late offensive rebounds to seal what would end up a 103-92 victory.
These Knicks have a “whole greater than the sum of its parts,” vibe. Early in the 2022-23 season, that whole was not consistent. The Knicks went on an eight game winning streak, which began in early December, and immediately afterwards went on a five-game losing streak that lasted until New Year’s Eve.
As well as Brunson and Randle were playing, the Knicks were not a whole team. It was highly unlikely at the Feb. 9 trade deadline that a whole could be made that would contend for an NBA Championship. Even winning a playoff seemed far-fetched during winter time.
Then the NBA trade deadline happened
On Deadline Day, the Knicks pulled off what at face value appeared to be a solid trade. They acquired Josh Hart from the Portland Trail Blazers by sending them a protected first round pick and the draft rights to Ante Tomic. The Knicks also sent Ryan Arcidiacono, Cam Reddish and Svi Mykhailiuk to the Charlotte Hornets to complete the deal.
As April comes to a close, that move may have bumped Knicks’ President Leon Rose’s Q-score in the tri-state area higher than the regulars in those Sidetalk NYC videos.
Hart played the final 25 games of the regular season for the Knicks. They went 17-8, the third-best record in the league during that span. The only teams that were better were the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks.
What Hart adds to the Knicks
What Hart brought to the Knicks that they desperately needed was shooting. While the Knicks finished the season ranked 19th in 3-point percentage, in the games that Hart played they were ranked 10th. Hart shot 51.9 percent from behind the arc.
The Knicks also needed some help with defense on the perimeter. Shockingly, this Tom Thibodeau-coached team finished the regular season 19th in defensive rating. The Knicks have held the ninth-best offense in the NBA under 100 points in three of four playoff games. Hart may never make an All-Defensive team, but he has always been a pest on that end of the floor. With the Knicks’ bigs overpowering the Cavs in the paint, anything to make Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell hesitate on the perimeter can hit the parking brake on that offense.
In Game 1 Hart’s biggest plays came on the offensive glass. He is a strong rebounding guard, and of the 10 boards that he hauled in during that win five were offensive. Hart was again strong in Game 3 with 13 points and six boards in a victory, but on Sunday his team needed an even greater effort from him.
Starter Quentin Grimes was injured, so Hart started in only his second game of the year for the Knicks. He scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds in just under 40 minutes of action.
During one stretch midway through the fourth quarter when the Knicks were up six points, he grabbed a defensive rebound and took the ball the length of the floor for a score. On the Knicks’ next possession he scored on a dunk, and then when he went back on defense he forced Mitchell into a turnover.
Of Hart’s seven rebounds, two were offensive. They both came with less than two minutes in the game. Both resulted in baskets that put the Knicks up by double digits.
The bargain that the Knicks signed Brunson for will go down as the deal of the offseason — especially if they finish off the Cavs. This opportunity to advance past the first round of the playoffs for only the third time since the turn of the millennium though, does not happen without the part from Portland that made the Knicks’ whole significantly more formidable.