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Work Hart, not smart, has been the New York Knicks blueprint since the end of January. While injuries to Julius Randle and OG Anunoby have kept their front court stars out of the rotation, Tom Thibodeau has turned to his tried-and-true method of working his blue collar contributors until they’re dog tired. His most consistent minutes-eater of late has been Josh Hart. When most teams would be pacing their players in anticipation of the regular season’s final stretch and the opening rounds of the postseason, Thibs has taken a different approach. It’s not entirely his fault. The Knicks have been so snakebitten that Thibs has reverted back to his roots by playing Hart 40 minutes in eight straight games.

However, nobody has played those sort of minutes in consecutive weeks since James Harden last did it in 2016. Josh Hart is in an exclusive club. Averaging 40 minutes a night is a forbidden threshold in the modern NBA, akin to working 16-hour Great Depression-era factory shifts. They don’t want too many players getting hurt on the job. But this is the same coach who played Luol Deng so many minutes in 2012 that he not only led the league, but also wound up leaking spinal fluid during the playoffs, and Thibs still tried to get him in uniform in time for their second round series.

Without Anunoby around, Hart has been putting up Employee of the Month numbers and still looks like he’s having too much fun and trolling opponents, but Thibs has to chill here. The stakes here aren’t as bad as keeping Derrick Rose in for the final minutes of a runaway playoff victory or trying to play Deng after he lost 15 pounds, but Hart is the ultimate glue guy. Since Anunoby’s injury thrust him into the starting lineup at the end of January, Hart has led the league in assists and rebounds and led the NBA in minutes per game over that stretch.

Twenty years go, nobody would have batted an eye at that sort of usage from a role player, and in this era no coach has been as resistant to resting his players as Thibodeau. Since sliding into that second seed, the Knicks been ravaged by the injuries. You could construct an entire starting lineup out of Knicks rotation players on the bench. When they get back, Tom Thibodeau is ready to run them into the ground because that’s the Thibs way.

To chart how bizarre it is for a player to cross that 40-minute threshold, @AutomaticNBA detailed exactly how unusual Hart’s run was. Twenty years ago, 18 players had a stretch of eight consecutive games playing 40-minutes or more. Kobe Bryant had a similar run during the 2012-13 season. Mike D’Antoni played him 40 or more for seven straight games before he tore his Achilles tendon (due to overuse) later that season.

NBA contests today feature more possessions, involve more movement, and place more mileage on player’s tires than ever. Josh Hart has been working overtime on a bargain basement $81 million deal. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard has played small ball power forward and that versatility has raised his value.

Right now he’s the hardest working man in the basketball biz. Once the Knicks get a full slate healthy, Hart will return to a do-it-all role off the bench. The downside of relying on Hart for that long every night is that it indicates how much trouble the Knicks have been in. Relying on Jalen Brunson and a utility guy since Jan. 30, the Knicks have gone 6-9. Brunson missed approximately a week of basketball before returning to the lineup on Friday. When Randle, Anunoby, and eventually Mitchell Robinson recover, Hart will return to his bench role and have his minutes slashed by approximately a third.

As for Thibodeau, his takeaway from this season has been to pace his stars to keep them healthy, but who are we kidding? Some things never change.

Find DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex



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