The Knicks head into the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the NBA, soaring to the No. 4 seed and homecourt advantage in their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks on the strength of 16 wins in the final 20 games of the season.
But not everyone was flying high through the finish line. As the Knicks made their way through the final stretch of the season, Elfrid Payton saw his struggles grow, his minutes drop and the cries from the fans for him to be removed from the lineup nearly as loud as the chants of, "M-V-P" for Julius Randle.
By season’s end, Payton was still the starting point guard, but his role was reduced to really just that, starting the game and the second half, playing to approximately the midpoint of that quarter when he would retreat to the second row of the bench and remain planted until the final buzzer as Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley or Alec Burks would handle the position to much stronger results.
In those last 20 games his minutes were reduced to 17.2 per game while his output was just 6.6 points, 2.6 assists and 1.4 turnovers. Coach Tom Thibodeau consistently defended Payton, pointing to his defense and impact in other ways. But the numbers kept dropping and in the final five games he shot just 3-for-19, missing both of his attempts beyond the arc, and saw his minutes dwindle to just 13.7 per game. In the season finale against Boston he looked lost, missing all four of his shots - two of them swatted at the rim by Luke Kornet - and struggling to keep up with Celtics rookie Payton Pritchard.
"I assess how I’m playing by how my team is doing," Payton said. "And we’ve been winning. So we’re in the playoffs."
"Look, I’ve said this all along. The depth of our team is one of our strengths," Thibodeau said Wednesday. "There’s things that Elfrid provides for us that are a big asset to our team. His size, his defense, those are important factors. And then you look at it in totality – how does the team function.
"As is the case with most young players – there’s going to be ups and downs. You don’t have to shoot well to play well. Just go out there and give us what you can. And every game is different. The thing that I love about our team is if someone’s not going good, then another guy steps in and if he’s going good, everyone’s cheering for that guy. The most important thing is the team winning. That’s where I want the focus to lie."
But the numbers tell a different story and not just offensively. His task starting the game will be a matchup against Atlanta’s Trae Young, who has had his way with him this season - and last season, too. In the limited minutes that he is matched up against Young the Hawks’ offensive production has soared.
It’s understandable why Thibodeaut would not want to shift Rose into the starting lineup. He has flourished in his second unit role, helping carry the offense in the few minutes that Randle sits. Payton is a more physical defender than Quickley. There was some hint from Thibodeau that little-used defensive specialist (and much stronger three-point shooter) Frank Ntilikina could see time in this series.
But Payton insisted, "I’m confident. I work on my game. I’m confident."
"I mean, he’s a great locker room guy," RJ Barrett said of Payton. "Everybody loves EP. He goes out there, even if he’s struggling offensively, he plays really good defense. It’s kind of just like anybody else. Everybody struggles sometimes. So we’re always there to pick him up. He’s there to pick us up. He picks me up when I’m struggling. He’s part of our team and we love having EP."