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Iman Shumpert to come off the bench Friday

Iman Shumpert #21 of the New York Knicks

Iman Shumpert #21 of the New York Knicks celebrates a basket against the Charlotte Bobcats with teammate Toney Douglas #23. (Jan. 4, 2011) Credit: Jim McIsaac

WASHINGTON – How close was Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni to starting Iman Shumpert in Friday night’s game against the Wizards? Close enough that it sounds inevitable that the rookie will eventually crack the starting five.

D’Antoni, in announcing at Friday’s shootaround at the Verizon Center that Shumpert would not replace Toney Douglas or Landry Fields, left open the possibility he could change his mind as soon as halftime on Friday.

“Starting the second half – you never know,” D’Antoni said.

But in the end the coach decided it was too soon to give the opening-tip starting assignment to Shumpert, who has played in two NBA games and had to exit both early, first because of a knee injury on Christmas Day and then because of leg cramps after playing 30 minutes on Wednesday.

“We want to be careful not to give him too much too soon,” D’Antoni said. ‘He’s going to play a lot. He’ll still play the same amount of minutes and he’s going to play with the starters and we’ll evaluate it going forward. I could start him, but I want to make sure everyone is good and confident. Anytime you throw a pebble in the water, there’s ripples.’’

One of the ripples would be Fields, the starting shooting guard who has regressed since the first part of his rookie season.

“You never know the cause and effect of certain things,” D’Antoni said. “I want to make sure. We’re going to play all these guys. It’s one thing if we decided not to play somebody. That’s pretty drastic. Starting or not starting, not as much.”

D’Antoni said he thought Shumpert, who has scored 29 points in two games and given the 2-4 Knicks much-needed energy, profiles best as a shooting guard. But if he started with Douglas, bench scoring could be an issue.

“We have to cure other problems,’’ D’Antoni added. “We’ll figure out the best starting lineup eventually. I’m not ready to say this is not it. You have to be careful at grasping at straws.’’

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