DENVER, COLORADO - DECEMBER 15: Elfrid Payton #6 of the New York Knicks drives against Monte Morris #11 of the Denver Nuggets in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center on December 15, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The New York Knicks nearly pull off the upset in Denver. Despite the loss, the four-game road trip should be considered a success.

Danny Small

  • New York Knicks 105 (6-21)
  • Denver Nuggets 111 (11-14)
  • NBA, Final, Box Score
  • Pepsi Center, Denver, CO

All things considered, the New York Knicks can call their four-game Western Conference road trip a success. Sure, it ends with a loss to the Denver Nuggets, but a 2-2 split is a positive result.

Although there are no moral victories in the NBA, the Knicks were able to fight back from a 20-point deficit to take a lead in the fourth quarter. It showed a grittiness and toughness that we haven’t seen consistently from the Knickerbockers.

But when it was crunch time, the Nuggets asserted themselves. All five Denver starters finished in double figures, with Nikola Jokic’s 25 points and 10 rebounds leading the way.

The point guards were one of the biggest bright spots for the Knicks in the loss. Frank Ntilikina snapped a recent cold streak with 13 points on 4-for-6 shooting and 2-for-4 from three-point range. He added five rebounds, four assists, and four steals in what was his most complete performance in weeks.

Elfrid Payton turned in another strong performance off the bench. Although he struggled with his shooting efficiency (10 points, 5-for-13 FG), his 11 assists were vital to the second-half comeback. The offense runs smoothly when Payton is in the game and although his shot is still inconsistent, he’s still finding his sea legs on the court after missing 17 games with a hamstring strain.

That leaves Dennis Smith Jr. as the odd man out at the moment. The Knicks don’t want to bury Smith on the bench forever. He was a major part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade and his development is a vital aspect of the current rebuild.

Interim head coach Mike Miller experimented with Payton and Ntilikina playing together for a few possessions against Denver. It’s possible that Ntilikina shifts to the two alongside Payton, opening up the backup point guard role for Smith. In this potential scenario, RJ Barrett slides to small forward.

Marcus Morris Sr. and Julius Randle combined for 42 points despite some poor percentages from beyond the arc. In fact, as a team, the Knicks shot a paltry 8-for-32 from three. Shooting and defending the three has been a problem for the Knicks all season.

Miller’s 5-Game Status Update

Through five games, the returns on Miller have been pleasantly surprising. Although it’s hard to argue that he’s making dramatic changes to the rotations or scheme, there have been some subtle changes that are clicking.

The Knicks have recently dialed back their switch-heavy defense and are simplifying things with more drop coverage against the pick-and-roll. The defense isn’t perfect, but they’re showing legitimate improvement under Miller. Offensively, things still tend to bog down when Randle has the ball in isolation, but overall there’s more ball movement and off-ball activity.

It’s far too early to crown him as the savior, but the Knicks have two wins, two close losses, and one blowout loss with Miller at the helm. Not to mention, they have a very winnable game against the Atlanta Hawks at home on Tuesday.

Of course, there is always the potential for a major setback. It happened under David Fizdale earlier this season. After securing two wins during a three-game homestand, the Knicks appeared to be turning a corner. Instead of turning that corner, they ran into a brick wall, starting the losing streak that would eventually be the final nail in Fizdale’s coaching coffin.

There are certainly positive signs from Miller thus far, but a five-game sample is too small to make any sweeping conclusions about the interim head coach.

Four-Game Road Trip Log

NYY

NYM

NYG

NYJ

NYK

BKN

NYR

NYI

NJD

SJU