Heading into Game Four of the Knicks’ first round series against the Cavaliers, head coach Tom Thibodeau was determined to keep in check All-Star Donovan Mitchell. Even as the latter posted modest numbers in the previous outing (a win for the blue and orange), the bench tactician wanted to keep the pressure from the get-go. And so he did the obvious: He made erstwhile sixth man Josh Hart part of the First Five in place of usual starter Quentin Grimes.

Granted, part of the reason was the need for Grimes to sit out the match due to a right shoulder contusion he sustained in the first half of the Knicks’ Game Three triumph. Then again, there can be no discounting the impact Hart has made on the best-of-seven affair. Thibodeau, a noted taskmaster, has been effusive in his praise of the midseason pickup, and with ample cause. As Mitchell’s poor Game Four outing the other day proved, the proclaimed Swiss Army Knife is up to the task typically reserved for lockdown defenders.

Significantly, Hart has, in fact, upped his output since the postseason began last week. In four contests versus the Cavaliers, he has put up a line of 13.5 points (on 60% and 55.6% shooting from the field and three-point line, respectively), 6.8 rebounds, and 1.5 steals — all while hounding Mitchell from end to end. As he noted in a tweet early this year, “I can play 35 mins in an NBA game and be good but I’ll always be out of breath going up steps” — if nothing else, a reflection of his resiliency.

In any case, Thibodeau clearly trusts Hart to make the right plays at the right time. And it bears noting that Cavaliers counterpart J.B. Bickerstaff is of like mind, referring to the 30th pick in the 2017 draft as a player who “impacts winning,” and who needs to be kept “out of the stat sheet.” That didn’t happen in Game Four, and whether or not it does from here on may well decide the series.


Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.