When you look at the box score of the New York Knicks’ Game 2 win over the Miami Heat on Tuesday, you’ll quickly notice Jalen Brunson’s 30 points, Josh Hart’s near triple-double, and Julius Randle’s 25 points and 12 rebounds.
What you might not notice is the player who may have saved the Knicks’ season.
Late in the fourth quarter, with Miami leading 96-93, New York had one of the longest possessions you’ll see in an NBA game. They brought the ball downcourt with 5:50 left in the game and took their first shot attempt with 5:30 left on the clock. By the time there was 4:45 left in the game, Josh Hart had nailed a corner three to tie the game at 96.
Central to that one minute-and-five-second possession were the Knicks’ four offensive rebounds, including three by backup center Isaiah Hartenstein. The extra attempts kept the possession alive and allowed Randle to find Hart for the game-tying three.
The Knicks would never trail again.
“Those were huge hustle plays,” said head coach Tom Thibodeau after the game. “We needed them. Those plays are unselfish, they’re winning plays.”
They’re also the type of plays that Hartenstein has been making for the majority of the season.
After signing a two-year, $16 million contract this offseason, the German-born big man seemed to struggle to find his place with his new team in the early going. He flashed upside, scoring 16 points with eight rebounds and four assists in the first game of the season. Yet, he too frequently seemed out of place as a big man who can pass and use screens on the perimeter to create offense when all he was being asked to do was flash to the corner or seal off big men in the post.
Yet, something clicked at the end of January.
Hartenstein was able to become more integral to the flow of the offense, making plays from the high post, and improving dramatically as a rim protector. From January 24th on, he has the second-best plus/minus on the team, behind only Josh Hart.
Hartenstein has taken his game to another level in the playoffs, registering the highest net rating of any Knicks player and the second-best plus/minus behind only Brunson. He has the best assist ratio on the team and is second to Mitchell Robinson in rebounding rate.
In the process, Hartenstein has grown into the perfect encapsulation of the Knicks’ team-first mentality.
“I just try to do whatever the team needs,” he said after the game when asked about why his style of play leads to him always being in the center of key possessions. “A lot of guys in the NBA can do a lot more [than me], but you have to find your niche in the NBA, and my niche on this team is playing hard, making smart plays.”
That selflessness to put the team before yourself is something that Thibodeau preaches consistently.
Even before the game on Tuesday, Thibodeau was asked about playing time for his injured stars or whether he would incorporate Quentin Grimes into the rotation more and he replied, “The team winning is the most important thing…I’m concerned with the team functioning and winning and what gives us the best chance and make decisions based on that.”
The rest of the team echoed those same sentiments after the Game 2 win.
“It’s what we do,” said Randle. “We get into things together, we get out of things together. I think because we really care for each other we’re able to stick together on the court in tough moments like that.”
Randle himself has come to represent that same selflessness as he battles to play despite a sprained ankle that’s clearly bothering him.
“It was hell,” he said when asked what he had to do to even play on Tuesday. “Every day just trying to get my body right…I just wanted to make myself available for the team…I’ll do whatever I’ve got to do to make myself available to play.”
Putting the team above all else is why Thibodeau benched RJ Barrett, and his 24 points, for the final seven minutes of the game so he could use Grimes’ defense. Putting the team above all else is why Brunson is also battling through an injured ankle. Putting the team above all else is why Mitchell Robinson, who was the star for the Knicks in Game 5 against the Cavs, took a backseat to Hartenstein in Game 2.
This Knicks team is willing to sacrifice whatever it takes in order to win a game. There is no advantage they can gain that would be too small. Every play counts, and nobody seems to understand that more than Hartenstein.
“I’m just trying to read a play to make those energy plays, especially in the playoffs those little details count,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “I just try to make sure I always do those little details.”
By focusing on the little details and energy plays, he has helped change the culture in New York as much as Brunson and Hart have. In the process, he’s won over more fans and the Knicks have started winning more games.