Home is where Hart is: Knicks new wingman off to scintillating debut

Josh Hart, New York Knicks

“I’m looking for a home, and I think this could be it.”

Josh Hart said all the right things and walked the talk as he felt at home from the get-go, playing a key role in the New York Knicks‘ 126-120 bounce-back win over the Utah Jazz Saturday night.

The Knicks’ new wingman entered the game to a loud ovation with 2:54 left in the opening quarter. By the time the buzzer sounded, the home crowd wildly cheered again for him during his postgame MSG Network interview as his imprint was all over in an exciting win that pushed the Knicks to 31-27.

“Oh I loved it,” Hart said of the Garden adoration. “I love it. There’s nothing like it.”

“They’re embracing me right now, and I love it. Like I said, I’m going to come in every day — I’m a blue-collar player — I’m going to do whatever I need to do, whatever the team needs me to do that day. I’m going to go out there and execute. I’m going to bring toughness, physicality, and just smart plays. It felt great for them to show me love the first time I came in. After those shots, it felt great.”

It didn’t take long before Hart endeared him to the 19,339 Madison Square Garden crowd in attendance.

Just 16 seconds into his Knicks debut, Hart drew a foul on a strong drive to the basket and split his free throws for his first point on his third team in six seasons. And after a missed basket by Utah’s Filipino-American guard Jordan Clarkson, Jalen Brunson found Hart in transition for his first Knicks’ field goal. Hart returned the favor in the closing moments of the first quarter, finding Brunson in the corner for a three-pointer for a 30-22 Knicks lead.

“It’s like second nature,” said Brunson, whose partnership with Hart at Villanova produced one of his two NCAA titles.

“It goes back to when we’re practicing against each other during those two years we were together, and we’re always constantly competing. Then when we got to the court, we just knew that we always wanted to win. We both just try to make the right play at the right time,” Brunson added.

Brunson has been spectacular since he arrived in New York in the offseason. The Knicks crowd has already been accustomed to Brunson’s nightly all-out performance, like Saturday night’s 38-point, five-assist gem. Now, they have another former Villanova product built in the same mold in Hart.

The 27-year-old Hart made winning plays that could be vital for the Knicks’ stretch run this season.

Hart hit the go-ahead three-pointer off another Brunson assist that broke a 101-all tie with 6:44 remaining in the game. After the Jazz lurked closely from behind, 112-109, Hart grabbed an offensive rebound and smartly fed a wide-open RJ Barrett in the corner for a three-pointer that gave them a six-point cushion.

Barrett scored 17 of his 20 points in the second half, including 10 in the final quarter.

Julius Randle, who finished with 31 points, padded the Knicks’ lead with five straight points. Then Hart put the game away with a three-point dagger off a Randle assist for a 123-114 lead with 1:42 left. Randle is another Knicks player who is familiar with Hart’s play. They played together with the Los Angeles Lakers during Hart’s rookie year.

“Having relationships when you’re going to a new team always helps. And it always when those guys are those guys,” Hart said before the game. “They’re All-Star caliber players. I’m looking to pick up where we left off.”

“Jalen and I had a lot of success at a different level, obviously. But we had success, we kept in touch. We know each other, we know each other’s game. And same with Ju. So I’m excited. It’s definitely going to help me out to have those guys on the team and someone I’m familiar with.”

It showed on Saturday night.

Hart was a seamless fit for a team and a city that prides blue-collar work and grit.

Hart stuffed the stats sheet with 11 points, seven rebounds, four on the offensive glass, four assists, and four steals with only one turnover in 25 minutes off the bench. He bumped off second-year guard Miles McBride from the rotation and closed the game ahead of starting wing Quentin Grimes. He was the only Knicks player who played the full fourth quarter, a sign that New York coach Tom Thibodeau fully trust him.

“I wasn’t quite sure [what to expect]. But that is who he is. So to be able to do it the way that he did, it was unusual,” said Thibodeau referring to the circumstances surrounding Hart’s debut.

“He drove down to [Philadelphia] to be with the team and came back today on a back-to-back [game] and to jump out there and play as well as he did, credit to him. He brought a lot of energy and toughness to the game,” Thibodeau added.

The Knicks swapped three players, including former lottery pick Cam Reddish, and a protected first-round pick for Hart, who hinted that he’d re-sign with the Knicks after he opts out of his $12.9 million player option next season. It was all worth it.

And home is where Hart is.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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