The shot clock was down to six seconds when Damian Lillard passed the ball off to Josh Hart late in the third quarter of Portland’s 124-118 victory versus the Timberwolves Saturday night at Moda Center. Hart took a couple dribbles toward the basket before momentarily losing control of the ball, forcing him to retreat back to the three-point line to keep Minnesota’s Kyle Anderson from coming up with a steal.
Hart managed to reassert his handle, but by that point, the shot clock was down to two seconds, forcing the guard to attempt an awkward one-handed push shot that he almost certainly knew was not going in, which it did not.
So right after landing, Hart followed his shot, even though there were four players -- two from each team -- in the lane between him and the basket. One of those players, Shaedon Sharpe, mistimed his jump on the rebound attempt and fell to the floor, taking Minnesota’s Naz Reid with him. Jaylen Nowell ended up with the ball for a half second, though Hart ended up wrestling it away to secure the offensive rebound and another possession for Portland.
With Nowell, who seemed stunned he no longer possessed the ball, having to defend the lane to the basket and Reid still trying to get to his feet, Hart was able toss an easy pass to Eubanks in the paint for a wide open dunk, giving the Trail Blazers a 94-92 lead, their first of the second half, which they would never relinquish.
Josh Hart Rebounds, Drew Eubanks Finishes Versus Timberwolves
And it wouldn’t have happened were it not for Hart doing what he does better than any other guard in the NBA.
At 8.3 rebounds per game, Hart, listed at 6-4, 215 pounds, is one of the NBA’s preeminent rebounders at the guard position. He trails only Luka Doncic, who is three inches taller and averages about a minute and a half more per game than Hart, though just barely, at 8.5 rebounds per game. And Hart ranks 30th overall in rebounds regardless of position, ahead of players like Karl-Anthony Towns, Jayson Tatum, Myles Turner and Zion Williamson, and is the only player in the Top 50 in rebounding this season who is under 6-5.
“College I rebounded the ball at a high level, high school I rebounded the ball at a high level. That’s just part of my game,” said Hart. “I do a good job in terms of tracking the ball and seeing where it’s going to go, if it’s going to bounce off the front rim, bounce off the back rim. Part of that is being able to see the ball, see a shot and measure the trajectory of it and get to where I think it’s going to go.”
What’s more, Hart leads all guards in offensive rebounds at 2.0 per game, though his teammate, Justise Winslow, isn’t far behind at 1.7 per game. Hart is so reliably excellent on the offensive glass that some of his teammates have joked he’s the reason their transition defense has been less-than-impressive this season, as they hesitate getting back in hopes of getting wide-open looks at second-chance points.
“I blame him for our transition defense being bad sometimes because when we see him running in there, we expect him to get it,” said Damian Lillard. “When I see him run in I’m standing by the three-point line because that might be an open three, so it takes me a second longer to get back when he don’t get it. I would blame that on him.”
(Hart’s response to Lillard: “That’s just old age, that’s all that is.”)
For Hart, rebounding has always been a way to stay engaged and have an effect on the outcome of the game. He’s not the kind of player who typically has plays called for him, so for Hart, making the extra effort on the boards provides him a chance to create his own opportunities.
“For me, (rebounding) was always just wanting to win and obviously a big part of winning is winning the battle on the glass and ending defensive possessions with a rebound, with a stop,” said Hart. “It was that and there was times where, offensively, I wasn’t engaged or wasn’t in rhythm because it was kind of like just standing in the corner type thing, so it was really my way of touching the ball, really, and just kind of getting involved and trying to get myself a rhythm. That’s kind of where it stemmed from.”
What’s more, Hart is the NBA’s best guard at grabbing contested rebounds. There have been guards throughout the years who have managed to inflate their rebounding numbers by getting fat on uncontested rebounds -- which are typically left to the bigs, seeing as how rebounding is how many centers and power forwards make their money -- but Hart is not one of those players. He pulls in 2.8 contested rebounds, which the NBA defines as a rebound collected “where an opponent is within 3.5 feet of the rebounder” per game, the best mark in the league amongst guards.
“I like being physical and I love getting contested rebounds. Those are my favorite ones,” said Hart. “I like contact, so I like getting hit a little bit. I like helping my bigs out.”
Though the importance of Hart’s rebounding goes well beyond simply giving him additional opportunities to touch the ball. Obviously a defensive rebound ends an opponents’ offensive possession and an offensive rebound earns a team an additional possession, both incredibly useful when trying to secure a victory. But having a dependable rebounder like Hart at the guard position comes with a number of ancillary benefits.
First, Hart’s rebounding allows for head coach Chauncey Billups to utilize smaller lineups. Portland’s regular starting lineup of Hart, Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic works in large part because of Hart’s ability to rebound at a high clip.
“First of all, his heart is as big as Texas,” said Billups. “You’ve got to have the will and the grit to go in there and do that. Most of the time you’re undersized and you’ve got to actually steal those rebounds from dudes that are bigger than you. So it’s a gift, it’s nothing I can teach. He brought that. None of us get credit for that, it’s just who he is. He has a knack for the basketball.
“It’s something we pay attention to because most nights, we’re smaller than whoever we play against. We’re just smaller in stature though, we’ve got a lot of guys that play a lot bigger than what their numbers say.”
And second, Hart creates opportunities nearly every game as a one-man fastbreak since he’s especially adept at going coast-to-coast after securing a defensive rebound. Hart’s ability to push the ball and either create a look for himself -- he’s called himself one of the best finishers at the rim in the NBA, as evidenced by his 66 percent shooting this season in the restricted area -- or one for his teammates creates easy opportunities to score in the halfcourt, something that Portland has struggled with at times as teams tend to key in on Lillard and, more recently, Simons.
“A lot of times you look at Nurk and Drew, guys like Jerami and you like ‘Alright, they’ve got some size and athleticism and they’re going to rebound,’” said Lillard. “But when you’ve got a guard who’s physical and clearing out space and going in there and getting rebounds like that, it gets us going in transition faster because a ball handler has the ball. He’s somebody that pushes the ball with pace and I think that really helps us, when he’s pushing the pace and has the ball in his hands.”
At this point, everyone on the Trail Blazers knows both that Hart is an elite rebounder, especially for a guard, and the benefits of having such a player on your roster. But the “why” with regard to why Hart is so much better than most of his contemporaries is something of a mystery. The prevailing theory is that Hart, an apex competitor, is simply more determined than most guards to when it comes to rebounding, a trait that is helped along by some of his measurables.
“I think the number one thing is heart, no pun intended,” said Lillard of the key to Hart’s rebounding. “You’ve got to have some heart, you’ve got to have some toughness because there’s some big, athletic, strong dudes in there. You’ve got to have desire to just go after the ball and be physical. You’ve got to have some athleticism. You’ve got to be competitive, you’ve got to be willing to fight that battle consistently. I think we’ve seen with him that he’s willing to do all of those things consistently, which is why he’s probably averaging 10 rebounds right now.”
Mentality certainly plays a key role, and Hart awards partial credit for his uncommon rebounding abilities to simply wanting it more than his peers. But more specifically, he chalks up his rebounding to two things.
First, he credits learning how to track the ball as a young outfielder growing up playing baseball in Philadelphia, as finding a baseball flying through the air at a high rate of speed prepared him for gauging the trajectory on a much larger ball traveling much slower and at a much closer distance.
And second, he has a natural predilection towards conducting ones self as efficiently as possible, so he takes a certain level of satisfaction in tracking the ball and then instantaneously forging the quickest path in order to secure the rebound.
“I think part of it is mentality, part is being able to track it,” explained Hart. “That’s the biggest thing. I played baseball when I was a kid so I was playing outfield and obviously with that, you’re tracking, seeing where the ball is going and all those kinds of things. That’s something I’m always doing, I’m always thinking that way, even when I’m driving in traffic. I’m like, ‘If I go in this lane…’ My wife doesn’t like it because I probably be speeding. I’m like ‘If I can go this way, I can do this…’ You know what I mean? I’m always trying to measure where I can go, where the ball is going to go, where I can fit and all those kinds of things. Stuff like that, that’s interesting to me.”
But whatever the reason, Hart is just happy his rebounding has made a difference.
“Hopefully it helps,” said Hart. “We’re able to put (Grant) on point guards and have his length kind of disrupt them. You don’t got to worry about getting beat on the glass because your starting four is really going to be on the perimeter for most of the game. That, being able to play small and not worry about getting killed on the offensive glass and stuff like that. Also helps getting out in transition, getting easy buckets, stuff like that. Hopefully it helps, hopefully the team likes it, the coaching staff is happy with it.”