SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In the morning shootaround before the Knicks took the floor for Friday night’s game against the Kings, interim coach Mike Miller spoke of his belief in all three of his point guards, maintaining that he would continue to rotate all three of them as he had through his first three games at the helm.
Instead, he never went to Dennis Smith Jr. once against the Kings, keeping him on the bench. And as he has increasingly done, he went to Elfrid Payton to play the role of closer.
With Payton playing 27 minutes, including the final six, the Knicks beat the Kings, 103-101, for their second straight victory after 10 consecutive losses. It marked the first time this season they had won two straight games, and they had to come back from a 16-point third-quarter deficit to do it.
Payton scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half, including a jumper that pushed the Knicks (6-20) in front. Mitchell Robinson added 14 points and nine rebounds off the bench. The Knicks’ reserves outscored the Kings’ reserves 53-26.
“I saw an unbelievable effort,’’ Miller said after watching the Knicks outscore the Kings 31-21 in the fourth quarter. “I’m really, really happy for that group in there. We were in positions where we bent a few times, but we didn’t break. So they were really shooting it. They run their offense at a high level and we were slow getting to them in the first half. We did a little better in the second half, and in the fourth quarter, terrific team defense.
“I could go down the line. It’s everybody — Taj [Gibson], the job he did, the lift that Bobby [Portis] gave us, the way that Elfrid finished. So many good performances and showing character to keep coming back.’’
Payton shot 7-for-13 and had four rebounds and four assists. “He hit big shots,’’ Miller said. “I tell you, you talk about the floor general — he was moving guys around, getting us to our spots, great job of clock management and not only hitting big shots, but knew exactly where we wanted to go and kept us organized. That’s what he does. He’s very good at it and had an outstanding game.’’
It helped that the Kings finally went cold after tearing the Knicks apart from beyond the arc much of the night. The Kings, led by Buddy Hield (34 points, 12 rebounds), shot 13-for-24 from three-point range through three quarters but were 4-for-15 in the fourth period.
Julius Randle, who led the Knicks with 26 points, hit a pair of free throws with 1.4 seconds left to put the game out of reach at 103-98. The Kings’ Harrison Barnes (18 points) hit a long three-pointer at the buzzer.
Does two straight victories feel like momentum?
“Well, I hope so,’’ Miller said. “We’re trying to build something. We’re trying to build, and that’s each day we put the day on top of another day. This is a good day for us.’’
Smith was back on the floor at the morning shootaround after missing a game with a migraine, which might seem like good news for a team that could use all of the help it can get.But getting Smith back also complicated the task for Miller, who is trying to figure out how to split up the minutes between his three point guards.
Frank Ntilikina started and had two points and no assists in 21 minutes Friday night.
Payton was sidelined from Oct. 30 to Dec. 2 with a strained hamstring that put him out of action for 17 games, and after leaving the team to be with his family after the sudden passing of his stepmother, Smith was gone from Oct. 27 to Nov. 11, missing seven games. Ntilikina took over the starting job on Nov. 1, and he was the only true point guard on the roster for a 12-day period. Now a healthy Payton seems to be trending upward.