Josh Hart at the heart of Trail Blazers’ hot start

Josh Hart finished dressing in the Portland Trail Blazers’ locker room following Wednesday night’s 105-95 win at the Charlotte Hornets and began talking to reporters.

Just a few feet away at his locker, Damian Lillard started singing the 1977 hit song, “Brick House,” by the Commodores, but with a slight twist.

“He’s a brick … house,” Lillard sang, offering a not-so-subtle reference to Hart’s 2-of-9 shooting performance against the Hornets. “He’s mighty, mighty, just letting it all hang out.”

Hart chuckled.

“As long as we get a win, that’s all that matters,” he said.

In many ways, the playful exchange encompassed what Hart means to the Blazers. For 11 games, Hart, who entered Wednesday night averaging 9.1 points per game, has sacrificed his offense for the good of the team. He could score more. But he knows his role.

And even though Lillard teased him about a poor shooting night, Hart knows what he’s bringing to the team goes far beyond moments such as Monday, when in the final seconds at Miami, Lillard passed to Hart in the left corner and he hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to lift the Blazers to a 110-107 win.

Hart finished with 12 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, demonstrating his abilities as a do-it-all guard/forward sacrificing his offense for the greater good. It’s what makes him a “winning player” in the eyes of Lillard.

“I think that’s the best way to describe him,” Lillard said in Miami. “His last name is the perfect last name for him. He rebounds like he is 7-feet, he’s always in the passing lanes, he’s physical, playing hard, passionate, cares about winning. He doesn’t care about shots.”

Hart, acquired by the Blazers (8-3) in a trade with New Orleans last February, is just 24 games into his Portland tenure. On Thursday, he will face his old team when the Blazers visit the Pelicans at 5:30 p.m.

“It will be fun,” he said. “I look forward to it.”

Hart, who spent nearly three seasons in New Orleans, said he loved the town, the fans and still has many friends in the organization that he is looking forward to seeing and competing against.

“I told (Brandon Ingram) I was going to lock that (expletive) up,” Hart said with a smile. “That’s my dog.”

For the Blazers, he is their “dawg,” the guy who brings ferocity to the court. It’s something the Blazers coveted when they sought to include him in the trade that sent CJ McCollum to the Pelicans.


Now about those shots. Or lacktherof. Hart said he certainly would like more, but he doesn’t desire them enough to hurt the team.

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like taking few shots,” Hart said. “At the end of the day, offensively, my role is different than what it was last year and what it was in New Orleans.”

In 13 games with the Blazers last season, while playing without Lillard, Hart averaged 19.9 points and 14.1 shots. This came after he averaged 13.4 points and 9.4 shots in 40 games with the Hornets. He entered Wednesday averaging 6.6 shots per game and shooting 47% from the field, including 40% from three-point range.

In the trade, the Pelicans landed the perimeter scorer capable of creating offense that they were looking for. The Blazers were able to shed salary and bring a versatile player coach Chauncey Billups coveted.

Hart, 27, said he recognizes that on a team with three prominent scorers such as Lillard (29.0 points per game), Anfernee Simons (22.4) and Jerami Grant (18.4), he must accept a different role to help the team.

“When you want to win, you’ve got to sacrifice,” Hart said. “I would love to be out there shooting 10, 12, 13 shots per game, and doing stuff like that. But at the end of the day, if you want to win, guys are going to have to sacrifice. Guys have to play different roles to help the team.”

Hart’s offensive opportunities, Billups said, could increase as the season goes along. Billups said Hart is still adjusting to his new teammates, which has led to some shooting hesitancy.

“I’m on him a lot of times about passing up shots because Josh can shoot the ball,” Billups said.

But that’s not necessary for Hart to make an impact. He makes is greatest contributions on defense and as a rebounder and facilitator.


Hart, Billups said, takes playing defense personally and values being disruptive at that end.

“What he really wants to do is he wants to guard the best player,” Billups said.

Hart said his drive to be a good defensive player is simply to enhance his value.

“I think I’m a solid offensive player,” he said. “I do a lot of things. But my way to always get on the court was to play defense and do the little things. I’m 6-5, on a good day, really I’m 6-4. I’m not that athletic. So, I’ve got to work that much harder to stay on the court. My way to stay on the court is playing defense and rebounding.”

Speaking of rebounding, Hart entered the game averaging 8.6 per game, which ranks 25th in the NBA and second on the behind center Jusuf Nurkic (11.2). Hart had 11 against the Hornets. Also, as a player not expected to shoot often, Hart regularly plays the role of facilitator, and he entered Wednesday’s game averaging 5.0 assists.

“It seems like every game he almost has a triple double,” Winslow said. “He does all the little things.”

The rebounding skills, Billups said, come from Hart’s inner desire to chase missed shots.

“I’ve always felt like rebounding is about will,” Billups said. “If you get seven or eight rebounds, you have to go 20 or 30 times and come up short and be okay with that. Most people when they go, they want to get it are they’re gonna stop going. And Josh is just not that guy. His instincts are great. He can read where those shots are coming off at.”

Winslow, who arrived in Portland around last season’s trade deadline with Hart, said he was instantly taken aback by his new teammates competitive desire.

“I didn’t realize all of the winning plays he makes,” Winslow said. “I knew he was a solid player and a two-way guy. But when you play with him, you realize all the little things. Box out. Diving on the floor saving a loose ball. So, it’s a lot of fun playing with a guy like that, that’s selfless and just wants to win.”

When Hart gets a defensive rebound, Billups doesn’t want him to pass to Lillard or Simons. Instead, Hart is instructed to push the ball up court and look to either take the ball to the basket or find an open teammate.

“That’s like he’s manufacturing his plays,” Billups said.

On Wednesday, Hart grabbed a defensive rebound late in the second quarter, ran up court and flipped an alley-oop pass to Simons for a dunk, giving the Blazers a 58-51 lead.

Having a third guy on the court who can push the ball in transition, Nassir Little said, is a bonus.

“I think he takes a lot of pressure off of Dame and Ant,” Little said. “You see where he busts out, puts pressure on the rim, makes the defense collapse and then finds guys, kicks it out. So, I think if he can make Dame’s and Ant’s life easier, I think that makes us a better team.”


Hart’s intensity can’t be overstated.

Billups said he has had to sit Hart out of practices when he becomes too fired up.

“He has no off switch,” Billups said. “It’s good for practice at times but other times, I’d rather have that at 7 o’clock.”

Hart doesn’t handle losing well and is extremely hard on himself and teammates. He has recounted times when he becomes irate over bad moments.

“There have been a couple of chairs that have taken some kicks,” Billups said. “He’s kicked a ball.”

Just how intense can Hart be?

During a training camp scrimmage in Santa Barbara, California, Hart asked Billups if the referees could call technical fouls.

“That’s all you need to know,” Billups said.

Billups told Hart that they could call technical fouls, then told the officials to be on the lookout for Hart’s antics.

“I went to the refs right away and said, ‘Any little peep, any little thing, call it,’” Billups said. “Because that’s the only way I can coach him, teach him. Yeah, he’s a beauty.”

Hart picked up a technical foul Wednesday against the Hornets. He had 10 last season, but said that only six, maybe eight, were legitimate.

Billups said players like Hart set the tone for a team.

“I think when you have guys that compete the way that he does, he is going to lift the group without saying a word,” Billups said.

Hart did have words to say during training camp.

“Josh said he wants to be a team that nobody wants to play and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Watford said. “That’s what we’re trying to build.”

Billups said he wouldn’t be surprised if Hart grows frustrated with his offensive numbers at times.

“But his defense, his rebounding, those things never waver,” Billups said.

And that’s what the team needs and why the Blazers view him as essential to their success.

“It’s the reason why we value him so high and we love him, is you don’t have to ever call a play for Josh Hart,” Billups said. “He is gonna manufacture scoring. He’s gonna manufacture plays. But what he really wants to do is he wants to guard the best player. He wants to go in there and get those gritty rebounds. He wants to do all the little things that most people shy away from. That’s what Josh wants to do. That’s what he loves to do. That’s what makes him happy. So, he’s just the perfect guy to play with.”

— Aaron Fentress reported from Miami and Charlotte, North Carolina.

— Aaron Fentress | | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook). Subscribe to Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts

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