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Guard play unpredictable as Knicks fall to Hornets

Knicks guard RJ Barrett, left, tries to pass

Knicks guard RJ Barrett, left, tries to pass the ball around Hornets forwards P.J. Washington and Cody Martin, right, during the first half in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Nell Redmond

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Knicks have become fairly accustomed to being a team in flux: new players, new roles, new coach, new president (soon enough), and still more than a quarter of the season ahead of them. The only thing that doesn’t seem to change is the result: More losses than victories, more frustration than fulfillment.

Wednesday night in Charlotte, the latest source of uncertainty and, at times, unease was that overcrowded backcourt, which suddenly seemed a little less jam-packed. Frank Ntilikina was out with a nagging groin injury, and interim coach Mike Miller didn’t sound optimistic about what he saw that morning. Elfrid Payton was back from his ankle injury, but a costly turnover in the waning seconds just about cost the Knicks the game, as they fell to the Hornets, 107-101, at the Spectrum Center. Payton had two of his six turnovers in the final 35 seconds as the Knicks (17-41) lost their fifth in a row, clinched their seventh straight non-winning season and are tied for the fourth-worst record in the NBA.

And as for the highlight-reel stuff, that came from some of the Knicks’ least-used guards, Allonzo Trier first and foremost. Playing in only his 22nd game, he scored 15 points in 16 minutes, and nearly tied the game on a left-wing three-point attempt with under a minute to play. Dennis Smith, Jr., too, built off his two previous solid performances: Nine points and three assists in 21 minutes.

And then there was RJ Barrett.

Hours after saying he wasn’t happy with his three-point shooting for most of the season and wanted to work on going to his right more, he went scoreless in the first half, finished with five points, shot 2-for-11, and sat for the entire fourth quarter. He missed his one first-half right-handed shot attempt — a layup — but did say he actually is a righty who’s been told his shooting form is better with his dominant hand. Barrett doesn’t agree with that particular assessment, joining a handful of professional athletes who like to ply their trade with their off-hand (LeBron James himself is a lefty who shoots with his right hand). The revelation, which Barrett actually had mentioned when he was drafted and was known when he played at Duke, caused a social media flurry, thanks in part to his shooting struggles this year. Barrett, like Smith, was also coming off one of his most complete games of the year, and hopes his ambidextrousness can start working more in his favor.

“I used to shoot two hands but then I started gravitating to the left,” Barrett said, meaning, at least in part, that at 19, he could develop the type of ability that could have him going both left and right. “I actually kind of like to dribble with my right more, which is kind of weird but nah, I’m just trying to make reads going both ways.”

As for the Knicks’ other big draft pick, it remains increasingly uncertain when Ntilikina could make his return. The groin injury is from last season, and Miller said he’s reaggravated it. Sunday, he was questionable, Monday, he was held out against Houston, and by Tuesday, he was termed doubtful before eventually getting scratched. Ntilikina has a dedicated maintenance program for the groin, but does suffer occasional flare ups. This one was severe enough that there seemed to be little hope of him taking the hardwood, even before Miller made it official on Wednesday.

“He’s not feeling to the point where we would even think he was going to be ready,” Miller said, though he held back from ruling Ntilikina out for Thursday’s game in Philadelphia. “[It’s not something] you can predict. It’s not something where he can go out and test his groin if it’s sore, so he just goes off the feel, and he knows. You know, maybe he feels better tomorrow and he could be available as quick as tomorrow. We’ll just have to see.”

Another uncertainty in a season full of them.

New York Sports