SAN ANTONIO — The Knicks spent the preseason trying to figure out who would emerge from the trio of point guards competing for the starting — or closing — role. And 90 minutes before the opening tip on opening night against the Spurs, Knicks coach David Fizdale threw a curveball into the mix.
Rather than Dennis Smith Jr., whom the Knicks had acquired in the Kristaps Porzingis trade; Frank Ntilikina, the 21-year-old lottery pick, or Elfrid Payton, who was signed as a free agent this summer with the idea that he would be given a chance to start, the Knicks opted for RJ Barrett.
The experiment was a failure. Without a real point guard at the start the Knicks fell into a 16-point hole. Then with Payton settling the team they fought back and took the lead. But when Fizdale went with Barrett again in the fourth it triggered an 18-0 Spurs run to send the Knicks to a 120-111 opening-night loss.
Not that Barrett, the 19-year-old rookie who was drafted as a shooting guard, was a failure. He earned the coach’s trust, pairing in the backcourt with Allonzo Trier at the start. Barrett scored 21 points and played far beyond his age in his first NBA game.
But the Knicks struggled at the start and continued to slide when Smith was brought in for Trier. It wasn’t until Payton took Smith’s place that the Knicks began to show some sort of cohesion on offense and also presented an obstacle to the Spurs guards.
“He was fantastic I thought,” Fizdale said of Barrett. “I thought he really competed. He only had really one bad breakdown where he helped off the corner and gave up the three. Overall, he was playing both ends of the floor at a high level.”
It’s hard for any of the point guards to argue that they laid claim to the job. Smith missed the first two preseason games with a lower back strain and then shot a combined 3-for-17 in the next two. Payton had one game in which he was 0-for-9 and Ntilikina shot 28.6 percent overall and 11.1 percent from beyond the arc. But Payton was third man in on this night and finished with 11 points, eight assists and five steals.
“Elfrid absolutely put his foot forward, took it to heart and ramped up the competition,” Fizdale said. “Like I said, I’m going to keep an open mind of this and whoever fights their way out of the pile, that’s who’s going to get the nod.”
With Mitchell Robinson out because of a sprained right ankle, Fizdale was hoping that adding Trier to the starting lineup would provide spacing for the other players. But Trier was 0-for-3 shooting and by halftime Fizdale had changed things up, starting Payton at the point in the second half.
The Knicks, who trailed by 16 in the first half, battled back to take the lead in the third quarter, holding an 84-83 advantage entering the fourth. Leading by six with 8:16 left, Payton went to the bench with his fifth foul and the Knicks opted for Barrett at the point. Before Payton came back in with 6:24 left the Spurs had run off eight straight points for a 99-97 lead. The Knicks couldn’t put the brakes on the run and it stretched to an 18-0 spurt before Bobby Portis finally tipped in a miss with 3:56 left.
Fizdale pointed out that the lineup could change, even as soon as Friday night in Brooklyn against the Nets.
“Absolutely. I’m going to keep putting it on them to really have to earn it and really force me to play you,” Fizdale said. “None of this is in stone, but at the same time the competition is on.”
Marcus Morris scored a team-high 26 points as he was booed nearly every time he touched the ball here at the AT&T Center after leaving the Spurs in a lurch in free agency this summer. Julius Randle struggled with cramping in the fourth quarter, but finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds.