SACRAMENTO — Dennis Smith Jr. was back on the floor at the Knicks' morning shoot Friday morning before the Kings game, which might seem like good news for a team that can use all of the help it can get.
But getting Smith back after he missed a game because of a migraine also complicates the task for interim head coach Mike Miller, trying to figure out how to split the minutes between three point guards.
Frank Ntilikina took over the starting job on November 1 when Elfrid Payton was sidelined with a strained hamstring that put him out of action for 17 games. Smith left the team to be with his family following the sudden passing of his stepmother. In the three games since Miller has been in charge, Payton has served as a closer in the two games that were a close loss and an overtime win. Smith has struggled to find a place.
“I’m doing my job,” Smith said. “Whenever I’m out there I compete. Just coming out, whenever I’m in, trying to maximize everything, play the right way, keep guys involved and attack. I play to my strengths within those minutes.”
Ntilikina has started all three games of Miller's reign. In the two games that all three point guards have been available, Smith was the first option off the bench, entering midway through the first quarter. Payton has started the second quarter. But after halftime, Miller has turned to what works.
“We’re kind of going where we get into the second half and it’s going to be whatever we need to do, that is working, that’s good with matchups, with our schemes,” Miller said. “Anything is on the table. We have confidence we can use guys in a lot of different ways.
“Second half, it’s time when you have to win games. You have to look at what has worked, what you did well, and then you try to play to those things down the stretch.”
Former coach David Fizdale had shuffled the starting point guards last season and early this season he started three different players in the spot in the first seven games — Payton, Ntilikina and RJ Barrett. Smith’s only start came in Milwaukee on December 2 when Ntilikina sat out with a back strain.
“We will start the same way,” Miller said of Friday's game. “I’ve been pleased again. As long as we keep getting off to good starts and the matchups are right, we’re able to establish something. Our second unit added a nice punch to the game. We’ve got a good flow. We’re going to stay with it, see if we can build.
“We kind of have the advantage that we have three guys that we can play to their strengths. Actually, the last couple have gotten more into the flow of the game and how they’ve played, what we thought the game dictated. So we went that way. We’ll see as we move into it today how everything unfolds.”
In the Knicks' favor, speedy Sacramento point guard De’Aaron Fox (ankle) is out. But for now, they are mostly worried about themselves.
“The three point guards, we’re focused on winning,” Ntilikina said. “Focused like I said, on this mentality of coming on the court and giving everything we can give. We’re not focused on the minutes. And that’s the mindset we’ve got to have really, trying to make this team improved. We don’t care about when a coach is going to call. When he’s going to call we’re going to be ready and just play.”