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Elfrid Payton makes long-awaited return for Knicks

Elfrid Payton was back with the Knicks Thursday

Elfrid Payton was back with the Knicks Thursday night against the Nuggets. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Elfrid Payton had just laid claim to the starting point guard job, coming off the bench in the season opener and then starting the next three when he suffered a strained hamstring that had him sidelined for the next 17 games while the Knicks' season went to pieces.

But Payton was finally activated in time for Thursday’s game against the Nuggets. Frank Ntilikina took over as the starter with both Payton and Dennis Smith Jr. away from the team, and Ntilikina got the start again with all three available.

Even if Patyon was coming off the bench, Knicks coach David Fizdale was happy to get him back in the rotation.

“I’ve been talking about wanting to run more,” Fizdale said. “So he’s a guy that really pushes the pace, he pitches the ball ahead, he gets guys open shots. So he’ll definitely be a welcome sight to our shooters.”

Working his way back

Michael Porter Jr. was the top-rated player when he came out of high school two years ago, but a back injury ruined his only season at Missouri and then kept him sidelined in his rookie season with the Nuggets. He has played in 10 games this season, averaging just nine minutes per game and had not played in the last three games before Thursday.

“Michael’s in a tough spot,” Denver coach Mike Malone said. “Here you have on one hand a tremendously gifted young talent who is just dying to get out there and play, who is healthy. There are no restrictions, there’s not worries or concerns about his back or his health. On the flip side of that coin is a team that won 54 games last year and has unbelievable depth with guys that helped us win 54 games and get to the Western Conference semifinals.

“The only way Michael is going to get really comfortable out there is to play. And that’s my greatest challenge as a coach, more than anything, finding ways to get him opportunities to play. Last few games he hasn’t played, but as we keep on telling him, he has to stay ready, he has to stay engaged, so when his numbers is called he can go out there and produce and play at a high level.”

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