Knicks starting point guard Elfrid Payton played 8 poor minutes in a Game 1 loss to the Hawks.
The Knicks had to lean heavily on Derrick Rose off the bench to replace Payton.
Tom Thibodeau has started Payton all season but may need to bench him to win Game 2.
Tom Thibodeau’s unusual point guard rotation got the New York Knicks in trouble early in Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks.
The Knicks started Elfrid Payton at point guard, as they did all season. However, Payton played just eight ineffective minutes, leading Thibodeau to quickly replace him in both halves and lean heavily on the 32-year-old Derrick Rose.
Rose finished with 38 minutes – 12 more than his season’s average.
Additionally, none of the Knicks guards could contain Trae Young. The Hawks star finished with 32 points and scored or assisted on 19 of the Hawks’ last 22 points, including the game-winning floater with .9 seconds left.
Thibodeau used Frank Ntilikina, who played just 22 seconds in the game, to guard Young on the game-winner. Young easily shook Ntilikina and got to the paint for a relatively easy look.
The Hawks’ 107-105 win effectively gave them the home-court advantage. Going into a critical Game 2, there is pressure on Thibodeau to figure out a more logical guard rotation – one that will distribute minutes more evenly and balance the Knicks on both ends of the floor.
Payton’s obligatory minutes got the Knicks in trouble right away
Payton once again got the start in Game 1, but he didn’t last long on the court.
Thibodeau took Payton out of the game with 7:45 remaining in the first quarter. He had gone 0-for-1 from the floor, picked up a foul, and perhaps most importantly, gave a half-hearted effort guarding Trae Young in transition, leading to an easy dunk for the Hawks.
The same thing happened again in the second half. Payton missed two shots and was subbed out with 8:14 left in the third quarter.
He didn’t play again, finishing the game 0-for-3 with 0 points, 1 assist, and a foul in 8 minutes.
Thibodeau has insisted on starting Payton all season and then turning to Rose and Quickley off the bench. Rose has largely finished games for the Knicks.
The decision has confounded fans, as Payton has largely been ineffective this season. While he has had positive moments, his poor three-point shooting (28% from three) hurts the spacing with the starting unit. He’s a relatively poor finisher in the paint (53% from less than five feet), doesn’t get to the free-throw line, and his defensive effort is inconsistent.
The Knicks had a negative net rating with Payton on the floor but outscored opponents by 6 points per 100 possessions when he sat during the regular season. The Knicks had positive net ratings with Rose and Quickley on the floor.
Thibodeau has been asked several times about his insistence on starting Payton and has said that Payton does little things that may not be obvious to everyone but hasn’t elaborated much beyond that.
Payton’s limited role and effectiveness in Game 1 led to calls for Thibodeau to bench him and replace him with a more effective starting option.
Thibodeau’s “Payton predilection,” as The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov called it, puts a burden on the rest of the rotation. If Payton can’t be trusted in playoff minutes, it forces Rose to play a lot more than he’s used to.
Thibodeau’s preference to play Rose and Quickley together – 16 of Quickley’s 19 minutes per game came alongside Rose in the regular season – only further complicates the rotation. If Thibodeau doesn’t trust Quickley to handle the ball solo, he will have to play his other ball-handlers heavier minutes as well to take some of that burden off of Quickley.
Payton may be more effective coming off the bench and playing against second units. Moving him to the bench and starting Rose could enable the Knicks to get off to better starts while avoiding playing Rose 35+ minutes.
The Frank Ntilikina question looms large
Ntilikina has largely been absent from the Knicks rotation this season, but the Knicks may need to give him regular minutes to contain Young. Thibodeau’s usage of Ntilikina on Sunday suggests that the coach believes he is up to the task.
Of course, no one will stop Young, but Ntilikina has had success slowing Young down before.
Thibodeau’s spare usage of Ntilikina also suggests that he doesn’t trust the fourth-year guard on offense. However, those concerns may not matter at the moment, given Payton’s ineffectiveness on offense. Ntilikina also shot 48% from three on 48 attempts this season. Even a regression to his career average of 32% would be an improvement over Payton.
Ntilikina is unlikely to play huge minutes, but the need for him defensively could also eat into Payton’s minutes.
Thibodeau has been criticized for being unwilling to drastically alter rotations or make adjustments quickly in the playoffs. How the Knicks’ guard rotation plays out in Game 2 could have a big impact on whether they tie the series or head to Atlanta for Games 3 and 4 in dire straights.
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