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Knicks' Elfrid Payton has to be on guard during this road trip

Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox, right, is double-teamed

Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox, right, is double-teamed by Knicks' Elfrid Payton, front left, and Mitchell Robinson, center, during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Credit: AP/Rich Pedroncelli

When Bill Fitch was the coach of the Nets long ago, there were rumors that he soon would be replaced. Reports predicted a date after an upcoming arduous stretch of the schedule. Addressing the rumors, Fitch pointed to the games and asked sarcastically, "Why not today?"

As similar rumors and requests surround Elfrid Payton’s starting role, with fans clamoring for rookie Immanuel Quickley to displace him, Payton wouldn’t have been wrong to ask at the start of the Knicks’ four-game road trip, "Why not today?"

The journey began with a matchup with Stephen Curry at Golden State; Curry scored 30 points, but the Knicks got the win. The next night, De’Aaron Fox scored 22 as the Sacramento Kings beat the Knicks. On Sunday night, it was Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. The trip ends Tuesday against Utah and its backcourt of Mike Conley Jr. and Donovan Mitchell.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has stressed that it is never one defender who gets the credit or the blame, but Payton is well aware that he is the one under the microscope.

"This is the NBA," Payton said Sunday afternoon. "Guys are really good. No one’s really stopping anybody by theirself. So every night Coach talks about it — this is something you all know — it’s never just an individual matchup, whether you’re going against a great [center] or going against a great [power forward], a great wing player. It’s going to take a team effort to help that guy with that matchup. I agree with Coach."

While Payton is not considered an elite defender, he has done a credible job this season in helping the Knicks allow a league-low 102.8 points per game entering Sunday. While Quickley’s individual defensive rating is better than Payton’s, the rookie has done it in limited minutes and often against backup guards rather than the procession of elite point guards Payton has had to guard on this trip.

Asked how he would approach Lillard, who entered the game averaging 28.1 points per game (third-best in the NBA, one spot ahead of Curry, with Mitchell at 17th), Payton said, "Somebody that can really score, been doing it for a long time. Definitely going to be a challenge, but I’m always up for it."

Thibodeau has stuck with the starting lineup every game, with the exception of inserting Austin Rivers in place of Reggie Bullock. Payton said he believes that unit has worked well together on both sides of the ball.

"I think we’ve got pretty good balance, man," he said. "We’ve got pretty good balance. Everybody kind of gives each other space to do what they do well, for the most part. RJ [Barrett] has found a really good groove. He’s playing really well. Julius [RANDLE]has been doing it all year. But I think we just find a way to give each other space out there to do what we do best individually."

While Quickley’s 19.7 points per 36 minutes is better than Payton’s 15.6, Payton has led the team to a 7-4 record when he scores in double figures.

"Sometimes in the flow of the game, guys have it going," he said. "Trying not to step in the way when guys have it going. I definitely want to be aggressive, but every game is different. It’s just a feel thing."

Said Thibodeau, "It’s a team sport, so you’re relying on everyone doing it together. If we fall short in one area, that can impact the execution of either your offense or your defense. You want to learn from each situation and come back ready for the next one."

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