Kyle Kuzma was just trying to do his postgame interview from the cramped visitor’s locker room in Oklahoma City after the Los Angeles Lakers triumphed over the Thunder in overtime, 138-128, and was wrapping things up by giving a genuine but innocuous answer about how Josh Hart had helped the team to the assembled media.
”His effort was amazing. He really helped us out and was the key to us winning,” Kuzma said.
Complicating Kuzma’s efforts to finish up and head to the team bus, however, was that his locker was in tight proximity with Hart’s own as the latter was pulling a shirt over his head right behind Kuzma.
Hart — as always — had to have some fun, and interrupted Kuzma to ask how he had liked his chance to give the new Nike Adapt BB’s a test run in a game for the first time against the Thunder.
“They were good,” Kuzma said, answering the question normally before the lightbulb turned on and he seemingly realized in real time wait a second, he’s not a reporter, I don’t have to waste my time on his questions.
“I’m back to my interview. Stop playing with me,” Kuzma told Hart, before continuing to praise the impact his fellow sophomore made on the Lakers.
”Anyways, he was great, I don’t want to boost his head up, but every time he plays like that he gives us chances to beat anybody in the league,” Kuzma said.
.@kylekuzma (32 PTS, 8 REB, 4 AST, 3 STL) tells @LakersReporter how "sticking to the game plan and playing the percentages" allowed the #Lakers to chip away at OKC's lead and ultimately take the win. pic.twitter.com/9F42lVi5Bj— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 18, 2019
The moment was quintessential Hart, and the situation was a perfect example of why he’s so beloved in the Lakers locker room. He can be a hilarious social media roaster and in-person jokester, but that type of schtick would fall flat and make him seem like a jester if he couldn’t clown opponents on the court.
But no matter how well Hart plays, given his understated game, he’s never likely to make any defender look sillier than the rest of the league looks for letting him fall to the final pick of the first round in the 2017 NBA Draft, and his 12-point, 10-rebound, 5-assist and 3-steal night against the Thunder typified the type of well-rounded efforts he’s already made a regularity during his second season, making several executives look silly for passing on him for prospects that allegedly had more upside.
“His hustle, energy and winning basketball plays (were key) tonight,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton told reporters after the win.
Walton’s words weren’t just an honest — and unsolicited — evaluation of Hart’s play, however. They come on the heels of Walton taking Hart out of the starting lineup last game as he struggled to his worst stretch of the season in LeBron James’ absence, averaging just 9.8 points on 27.1 percent shooting from behind the arc since the star went down.
Hart was honest after the game, saying that the decision wasn’t easy on him, but he also made it clear that it wasn’t going to stop him from trying to make a positive impact on the Lakers:
Josh Hart: "Being a starter then not being a starter is always challenging, but then having back spasms the last several days, that’s always challenging too. At the end of the day, I gotta do whatever I can do to help this team win."— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) January 18, 2019
Hart did exactly that against the Thunder, with multiple members of the Lakers saying there was no way the team could have won that game without Hart serving as the spark to their comeback from a 12-point first quarter deficit when he started the second quarter.
“I think it started with J Hart. J Hart came in today and proved why he’s brought so much to this team,” said Lakers guard Lonzo Ball. “I don’t think he missed any 50-50 ball that came by him. We ask him to do a lot at his size, play the four sometimes, but he never complains and does his job.”
Walton had also praised Hart for how he handled getting benched after his first game in the new role, and his sacrifice of starting gig and his body while defending bigger players were rewarded in Oklahoma City with one of the victories Hart craves.
It wouldn’t have happened without him.
“Without him, we don’t even come close to winning that game,” Walton said.
All quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.