Josh Hart is defying everything we know about playoff basketball with the Knicks

Anyone who has any familiarity with the NBA knows that The Playoffs are an entirely different beast. Teams have more time to prepare for their opponents than they do in the grueling regular season, and they use those extra days and hours to pinpoint their adversary’s weaknesses.

One type of player who tends to struggle in the postseason is non-shooting wing/forwards. Year after year, we see players like Lakers forward Jarred Vanderbilt thrive in the regular season only to get played off the floor in the playoffs. This year, we’ve already seen this start to happen to Derrick Jones Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks (after starting in Game 1, he played less than five minutes in the second half).

Josh Hart theoretically fits within this player taxonomy. He’s a defensively-inclined wing/forward, but while he’s a good defender, he’s not an All-League caliber one, like Herb Jones or Jonathan Isaac. That means he’s got to work even harder to overcome his limitations and stay on the floor.

And on the other end, he’s exactly the type of guy you’d expect other teams to scheme into a liability. He doesn’t command high usage (21st percentile, per Dunks & Threes). And most importantly, he’s a below-average shooter (19th percentile 3-point percentage).

In short, Hart would appear to be the the proverbial 82-game player, the type of tweener who excels in the regular season before getting played off the floor when the games really matter. That’s what happened in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals clash against the Miami Heat. After averaging 35 minutes per game in the first round (against the Cleveland Cavaliers), Hart only played 29.7 against Miami, including one game (Game 5) where he logged only 9:03 minutes of playing time. To make matters worse, New York ended up winning that game.

This quandary made Hart the biggest swing factor for New York heading into the postseason. He was instrumental to the Knicks’ regular season success (second on the team in total minutes), but he hadn’t corrected the weakness (his shooting) that led to his demise in 2023. In short, heading into the playoffs, New York needed him to be a huge part of their playoff rotation, but it was impossible to know if they could count on him.

Fast forward to today, and the Knicks have played two games against the Philadelphia 76ers, won both, and Hart has averaged 21.5 PPG and 14 RPG while being on the court for 90 of 96 possible minutes. But how?

The reason a lot of players of Hart’s superficial archetype get played off the court is that when defenses ignore them when they are standing at the 3-point line, they can’t hit the open shots when they attempt them, and then their offense’s entire spacing is thrown off as a result.

So, the best way to fix this problem is to hit those open threes. Through two games, Hart has done that, hitting 8 of his 15 3-point attempts (53.3%). Now, Hart didn’t magically go from being a below-average shooter to one of the best of all time. In reality, Hart’s drastically improved conversion rate can probably be explained by shooting luck.

However, it takes a great deal of confidence to take these shots in the first place, especially when the defense is acting like you don’t even exist. That’s the first key to Hart’s early playoff success: confidence. Hart, like almost everyone who has ever lived, isn’t perfect. But unlike a lot of people, he doesn’t let his mistakes get the best of them. No matter what happens – good or bad – Hart puts his head down and focuses on the next play.

In the first clip in the montage below, we see Hart miss a wide-open three. A lot of guys could become hesitant to pull the trigger the next time around, but not Hart. He always plays like he believes his next shot is going to be the one that goes in.

Hart’s confidence extends to his adventures toward the rim. He isn’t a super-athlete like Jalen Green, who uses his dynamic first step to blow by defenders in the halfcourt. Rather, Hart elects to push the pace off of misses, using the fullcourt to build up speed for his forays into the paint. When he finally reached his top speed, Hart becomes fearless, even willing to challenge the venerable Joel Embiid at the basket:

Hart’s transition possessions are so potent that New York intentionally puts him on tertiary offensive players (like Tobias Harris and Kelly Oubre Jr.) so that he can be the one to grab defensive rebounds (it’s harder to crash the glass when you are the one contesting the shot) and initiate the fastbreak. Like this:

Hart may have missed the layup, but his rim pressure created the opportunity for his teammate Mitchell Robinson to land the putback slam.

Speaking of rebounding, the second key to Hart’s success is his physicality. The Knicks had the seventh-best offense in basketball this year (in terms of offensive rating) despite being 16th in effective field goal percentage (a metric that measures both two and three-point shot making, and accounts for the increased point value of threes).

They do this by mastering the offensive glass (1st in offensive rebounding percentage). You see, when you get an offensive rebound, it doesn’t count as a new possession. So, you basically get multiple shots in one possession – instead of just one shot per possession, which is what most teams get.

Hart plays a big role in executing this strategy. Hart is only 6’4, yet he’s in the 61st percentile in offensive rebounding rate in the entire league (in fact, during his days donning the Purple and Gold, his teammates would endearingly refer to him as “Josh Barkley” for his tenaciousness on the glass). This is where his physicality comes into play. Hart can’t tower over shorter defenders and wait for the ball to fall into his hands. So, he uses his strength — seriously, he is so stout that trying to move him and being unable to led grizzled veteran forward David West to retire — and ironclad will to bulldoze through the trees and collect second chance opportunities.

Over the last two games, Hart has collected eight offensive rebounds. For reference, Embiid, a bonafide seven-footer, has also accumulated eight offensive rebounds in this series.

Hart’s offensive rebounding prowess is so well-respected that one could argue his presence was indirectly responsible for Donte DiVincenzo’s go-ahead triple in Game 2.

But perhaps the main aspect of Hart’s game that has powered his recent run is his ability to operate with the ball in his hands in spurts. Yes, his usage rate is low, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do anything on-ball. At times, the Knicks will have Hart bring the ball up the floor in order to let Jalen Brunson run off-ball actions. And sometimes, the Knicks will even run some plays that are specifically designed for Hart.

As a general rule, it is harder to sag off a non-shooter to protect the paint when they are the ones directly involved in the play; hence the past success of guys like Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

The bottom line is that Hart breaks the rules of playoff basketball by doing enough to make up for the poor spacing that his player archetype creates. Hart is (now) confident enough to let it fly when the defense dares him to, opportunistic enough to play with the pace when the moment presents itself, fierce enough to uphold his team’s identity, and versatile enough to wear different hats on offense.

Hart is proving that he can be the rare non-shooting wing/forward that survives the cutthroat environment that is the playoffs. And while his path for doing so hasn’t been easy, fortunately for the Knicks, that seems to be just the way Hart likes it.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top