Knicks may have found starting point guard in hard-fought loss
SAN ANTONIO - The Knicks lost their season opener, but may have found their starting point guard.
Coach David Fizdale's decision to experiment by starting rookie RJ Barrett at point guard against the Spurs on Wednesday backfired, but he quickly realized his error.
Fizdale reversed course with a super-steady Elfrid Payton to start the second half at point guard and the Knicks looked very competitive after the first quarter.
In fact, the Knicks were looking poised to steal one at AT&T Center, leading by six points with 8:08 left. However, the Spurs punched the game away with an 18-0 fourth-quarter run to post a 120-111 season-opening victory.
"Overall I was really happy with our defense,'' Fizdale said, citing 16 steals. "That's a monster team to try to defend. It's two-and-a-half weeks we've been together. To compete against a team like that that's been together at least three years, I was very proud of that effort."
And of Payton, who was the third point guard to enter in the second quarter and made the Knicks look good again. He finished with 11 points, eight assists, five steals, no turnovers and was a plus-14. The only other Knick on the plus side was Julius Randle's plus-6.
"He turned our pace up,'' Fizdale said. "He started making plays for different people. Nothing's in stone. All three point guards got to play. Elfrid took it up a notch, helped give us a chance."
Asked if he will start against the Nets on Friday, Fizdale wouldn't fully commit.
"Maybe,'' Fizdale said. "I'm going to watch the film. Elfrid absolutely put his foot forward, took it to heart and ramped up the competition."
The Post reported last week Payton was all but promised the starting job in July when he signed a one-year, $8 million deal. That's what made Fizdale's move to Barrett stunning, bypassing all three point guards.
With Barrett as floor general, the Knicks fell behind early, trailing by 16 points in the second quarter before rallying.
"Just trying to help in any way possible,'' Payton said. "Just trying to do what I do. Be a defensive presence, get into the paint, get the ball to my teammates."
The Spurs, 10½-point favorites, dominated the final eight minutes with Randle out of the game briefly because of cramps. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge's 22 points, San Antonio won the fourth quarter, but it didn't overshadow a slew of positive Knicks developments.
Randle, who returned eventually to the game, put forth a solid Knicks debut by powering in 25 points with 11 rebounds and six assists. Marcus Morris shook off the boos caused by his reneging on his Spurs verbal commitment to pour in 26.
Morris predictably was booed loudly during player introductions and on the first possession when he got the ball in the low post. He sank the turnaround jumper.
Barrett, once he got out of the point-guard role, excelled and finished his NBA debut with 21 points in 35 minutes, making 9 of 13 shots, mostly on drives.
"We got to keep fighting like that and we'll be all right,'' Randle said. "We're an extremely connected group. Teams go on runs. It doesn't faze us. We stay together. Once we learn how to finish these games, it's going to be really good."
Fizdale backed away from his Barrett stunner to start Payton in the second half after he brought the Knicks to life in the second period. The Knicks started the game shooting 1 of 11 and fell behind 10-2 with Barrett as field general.
Barrett shared the backcourt to start with Allonzo Trier, who was benched for the game's final 41 minutes. However, Barrett looked uncomfortable with that extra responsibility of bringing the ball upcourt, even having a backcourt pass stolen in the opening two minutes, resulting in a breakaway layup for Trey Lyles.
Payton pushed the pace, shared the ball and knocked balls away.
"True professional,'' said Randle, who played with Payton in New Orleans. "Stayed ready, his number was called in the second quarter. Stayed locked in and got us going. Pushing the pace on the offensive end and obviously played great defense. That's what a true professional is right there.''For more from Marc Berman, listen to this episode of the Knicks podcast, "Big Apple Buckets":
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