Somebody asked Josh Hart the other night about the splendid stretch the Knicks have been on since he was acquired from the Blazers. The Knicks are 11-3 since Hart arrived from Portland, including eight for his first eight. If you’ve watched the Knicks all season it is obvious that isn’t a coincidence.
“Man, it’s great,” Hart said. “I think this team was trending upward when I got here, and I was able to kind of just fit right in and continue to help this team grow. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Hart has done a little bit of everything in his 30 minutes a game off the bench. He’s averaged 11.1 points. He pulls down 7.1 rebounds per. He’s at 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals and has shot 58.9 percent as a Knick (55.9 from 3-point range). And his energy is only matched by his basketball IQ. He has fit in with the team as seamlessly as when John Lennon asked Paul McCartney and George Harrison to join the Quarrymen.
“It feels great that we’re able to win, and I’m in a new position right now where I’m sitting here and we’re really playing for something,” Hart said. “I haven’t really been in this position before in my career. So that’s just making myself even more hungry, and the rest of the guys in the locker room.”
It’s funny. You hear the wonder in Hart’s voice and you think to yourself: man, this sure sounds like someone who’s never even been to the NBA playoffs.
And then you take a quick peek at his bio on basketball-reference.com and you remember that there’s a good reason for that: in six seasons as a professional basketball player he has never been in the NBA playoffs. Not a game, not a minute.
And that, as much as anything, makes him fit in so well with the Knicks who, among the nine regular members of the rotation, have precious little postseason experience to fall back on.
Jalen Brunson, as with most things on this team, is the outlier: He’s played in 25 postseason games the past two seasons, averaging 17.8/4.0/3.0, and it was his performance last year in helping to fuel the Mavericks’ run to the Western finals that helped make him such a must-have free-agent pickup for the Knicks.
The rest of the Top Nine?
Hart, Quentin Grimes and Mitchell Robinson have played zero playoff games.
Isaiah Hartenstein has played in four — but only two if you discount the two play-in games he played with the Clippers last year.
Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin have played in five games apiece, losing four of them.
That’s it. Eight players, 24 postseason games combined and a ninth with 25 — and if you remember how the Hawks series went two years ago, it goes without saying that the this collective experience, while limited, has also been fairly dispiriting.
OK. Now, playoff experience can be as essential or nonessential as you want it to be. It doesn’t take much to change the narrative — one excellent series will do it, especially for this group. It’s the same dilemma you always face on job interviews early in your career.
BOSS: We don’t hire anyone without experience.
YOU: How do I get experience?
BOSS: Go get some, then we’ll talk again.
The thread that connects all of the Knicks’ top players is a hunger to get that experience, to pile up playoff reps, and to make it where making the playoffs is an expectation and not a career highlight.
The best players add almost two full seasons to their careers with all the playoff games; LeBron James has played in 266 of them — more than three seasons’ worth. Steph Curry has played 136. Even Giannis Antetokounmpo, still a relative baby at 28, has played in 77 of them.
All of which makes it essential for the Knicks to properly manage the final 11 games of the schedule. They are percentage points ahead of the Nets and three games ahead of the Heat for fifth place; they’re two games behind the Cavs for fourth. Staying in that 4-5 range will allow a reasonable chance to actually win a series and, as important, build the Knicks’ collective postseason experience. Will seven wins get that done? Will eight?
Whatever the number, that’s the task facing the Knicks. They are almost all playoff newbies. No matter where the season ends, they need to look at this is a chance to take a good look around the playoffs, all of them, and make it a point to be back again. And again. And again.
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