Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau sounded noncommittal on whether Elfrid Payton will retain his starting point guard role for Wednesday’s Game 2 against the Hawks.
Somehow, Payton hit an even lower rock bottom vs. the Hawks. Thibodeau pulled him out quickly in both halves and Payton played just eight minutes. He finished scoreless for the third time in four outings.
It was telling Thibodeau elected to bring in Frank Nitlikina stone cold to guard Game 1 hero Trae Young on the final play with 9.8 seconds left. Though Young won the battle with a game-winning floater after driving by the Frenchman, it might be the start of Ntilikina’s role expanding in the series. Young finished with 32 points.
When asked directly if he’s considering finally making a starting-lineup change at point guard, Thibodeau gave a different answer than the usual defense of Payton. However, it still qualified as a tap dance.
”Regards to Elfrid, we always put the best players out there that will help us win the game,’’ Thibodeau said following Monday’s practice. “So some guys are a bit better than others in situations, some guys may be going well. Whoever is going well, we have confidence in everyone on the roster.’’
Payton has been in a deep slide for weeks, while Ntilikina has been mostly out of the rotation this season. Recently, Ntilikina has played spot defensive possessions. Ntilikina, the longest-tenured Knick, played 32 seconds vs. Atlanta – once to defend Young on the final possession of the first half and then on the game’s final possession with the score tied.
Thibodeau was asked if Ntilikina’s role would expand for Game 2 since he was comfortable enough with him to insert him in a game-deciding situation.
“I’m comfortable with everyone on the team,” Thibodeau said. “I’m around them every day. So I know what everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are. That was a good play that Young made, a great player, sort of a scramble type play. But there are a lot of plays throughout the course of a game that we’re capable of doing better on.”
Payton had trouble staying with Young early and was soon on the bench. The Knicks got off to a poor start, trailing by 11 in the first quarter, playing too jacked with the Garden crowd of 15,000 in a deafening frenzy.
Thibodeau may have made a reference to Payton’s bad body language when he talked about analyzing the game film for intensity levels when determining changes.
“That’s why you watch the film,’’ Thibodeau said. “You played it a number of times. And you have different things to go to. That’s part of it. You have to make sure it’s being executed properly with proper intensity before making an adjustment. We evaluate all those things.’’
Payton has seen his minutes dwindle and hasn’t scored more than six points in any of his past seven games. Thibodeau may want to keep Derrick Rose on the same Sixth Man role but give the start to Ntilikina to set a defensive tone.