Josh Hart Seals Summer MVP Case in Wild Semifinals Battle

Josh Hart has been on the biggest stage in college basketball. He didn’t know that a summer league game could compare in intensity.

“Obviously this was an NBA Summer League game, but this felt like it was totally different,” he said after the Lakers’ 112-109 double-overtime win over Cleveland in the semifinals.

“I’ve played in (the) Final Four, I’ve played in the national championship. It had that ‘national championship-esque’ feel to it.”

While the game didn’t have the pageantry of the NCAA title game, it did have similar energy because of how passionately both teams went at it. The Lakers and Cavaliers traded haymakers for all six periods, with Hart delivering the hardest punches of them all.

The sophomore entered the game leading summer league in scoring with an average of 21.6 points … and then he dropped 37 on the Cavs.

“Obviously he had a star performance tonight,” summer league coach Miles Simon said of Hart, who inflated his average to 24.2 points with this game.

Hart was a one-man offensive battalion, putting up an exhausting 28 field goal attempts while remaining efficient by hitting 13 of them.

Cleveland couldn’t stop him from knifing to the rim (where he shot 7-of-11) or striking from 3-point range (6-of-15).

Hart has spent many hours this offseason working on his ball handling, which was on full display during a night highlighted by two spinning layups.

As the game wore on, Hart and the Cavs’ battle of buckets was accompanied by a war of words.

The trash talk was ceaseless from players across the floor and from both benches, while Hart continued to elevate his game, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter alone.

The 23-year-old didn’t even need words to goad his opponent on multiple occasions, instead staring his defender down before rising up for a 3-pointer.

“When you’re out there, you’re competing and the only friends that you have are the ones wearing that same jersey,” said Hart, who also had nine rebounds. “Trash-talking’s a part of basketball. At the end of the day after the game, it’s all love. That brings out the best of you, and that’s how you saw the game go.”

Hart’s 37-point performance was the highest-scoring night by a Laker in summer league history, When he learned that he surpassed teammate Lonzo Ball by a single point, Hart expressed that he was eager to inform his point guard who the new record-holder is.

“I definitely am now,” Hart said. “I’m gonna tell him I was getting buckets out here. … I’m gonna let him know about that one, definitely.”

For all of Hart’s brilliance putting the ball in the hoop, his most clutch moment of the night came when setting up a teammate.

Down by three with only 41 seconds left in the first overtime, Hart ran a pick-and-roll (which he has consistently hit 3’s off of at summer league).

The defense was so concerned with him attempting a triple that three Cavs lunged at him, leaving Xavier Rathan-Mayes wide open for the game-tying trey.

“He gives us all energy,” said Svi Mykhailiuk, who had 31 points of his own. “We can always rely on him. He’s the leader of our team. We know we can count on him every time.”

It wasn’t a perfect game for Hart, who missed one high-pressure free throw at the end of each overtime period. However, he took ownership for his errors with a self-prescribed set of pushups at the end of the game.

Hart will enter Tuesday’s championship game versus Portland as the summer’s scoring leader (24.2) with the second-most made 3’s (3.5).

With the voting for Summer League MVP submitted before the title match, it’s all but certain that he will be standing at midcourt, trophy in hand before tip-off.

He definitely has his coach’s vote.

“Yeah, and he should get everyone else’s vote, too,” Simon said. “Guy’s been an absolute stud game in and game out. He’s been tremendous.”