Cleveland had an army. New York had a Hartenstein.
For 15 vital seconds, the New York Knicks‘ addition of Isaiah Hartenstein won the NBA offseason, as his vital defensive play in the final stages of a Tuesday night contest gave the Madison Square Garden dwellers a crucial victory over the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers. Hartenstein denied former Knicks trade target Donovan Mitchell of a late equalizer on what became the Cavs’ final possession of the game, partly securing a narrow 105-103 victory.
Mitchell got his own rebound on the floor and was able to dish it off to Evan Mobley, but an off-balance would-be equalizer was secured by RJ Barrett to commence MSG’s celebration.
Not only did New York (26-23) take down a prime Eastern Conference contender with the win but it also ended a four-game losing streak. They’re also 2-1 this season against Mitchell, whom many believed was destined to don blue-and-orange this season before the Cavs wooed his former employers from Utah well enough to pull off a trade last summer.
Hartenstein, formerly of the Los Angeles Clippers, was among the de facto consolation prizes the Knicks picked up in the wake of the Jazz’s rejection. While some free agents shy away from the intense pressure the basketball-obsessed spotlight of New York City places upon them, that exposure was partly why Hartenstein signed with New York, he claimed.
“It’s kind of what I came here for,” Hartenstein told SNY. “I know myself. I’m not playing as good as I’m supposed to be playing. I feel like I’m letting the fans down, the city down a little bit. But I’m just going to keep getting better because I know I can do it. So it’s just trying to get better and represent New York.”
Hartenstein is perhaps far from the only Knick capable of providing a brutal self-assessment: New York had dropped four in a row entering Tuesday’s game, a streak that wedged them out of the automatic six playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The streak, rising in the wake of a thumb injury to starting center Mitchell Robinson, saw the Knicks surrender an average of over 125 points a game.
Robinson’s medically-induced departure is said to last at least three weeks, opening the door for a chance for Hartenstein to flip the narrative on a season where he has fallen behind on several career-bests set on the west coast last year. The primary interior minutes, however, were instead bestowed to Jericho Sims, a second-year center and fan favorite who earned the starting nods at center with Robinson missing the last three games entirely. It has gotten to the point where Hartenstein has had his name included in hypothetical trade deadline deals as Feb. 9 looms though the uncertainty around has perhaps bought some time on his metropolitan career.
Hartenstein, however, fully capitalized on an opportunity, partaking in a sterling New York defensive effort that allowed its lowest point total since Jan. 2. The 22 minutes Hartenstein played marked the first time he’s played over 20 in the calendar year and he rewarded the faith head coach Tom Thibodeau placed in him with nine rebounds.
Thibodeau was thus sure to acknowledge Hartenstein’s defensive heroics in the aftermath.
“It was terrific a monster play by him,” Thibodeau said of Hartenstein’s rejection of Mitchell. “He played a super game all around. That was huge. I thought our bench was terrific. At the start of the fourth quarter, it gave us a big lift and we needed it.”
To Thibodeau’s point, the Knicks’ reserves outscored Cleveland 27-12 and posted a diverse scoring effort in contrast to the bench point dominance normally held by Immanuel Quickley. Hartenstein had four points of the tally while Obi Toppin secured 11 in 10 minutes. Toppin, Quickley, and Miles McBride accounted for all but four points of a 12-7 run over the frame’s first four minutes, one that gave the Knicks a double-figure lead before Mitchell led a charge to narrow the gap.
Hartenstein returned the kudos from Thibodeau, as it was the head coach’s advice in guarding Mitchell that inspired him in the final stanza.
“Just be vertical, no matter what he does,” Hartenstein recalled, per the New York Post. “I was just trying to help any way I can, especially with Mitch being out, just trying to fill his role, just protecting the rim.”
The Knicks and Cavaliers (29-20) will do battle one last time on Mar. 31. In the meantime, New York visits the Eastern Conference leaders in Boston on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags
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