New York Knicks
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

New York Knicks interim coach Mike Miller opted to go with Dennis Smith Jr. off the bench but turned to Frank Ntilikina in a tight spot.

Danny Small

There are only 48 minutes each game for New York Knicks interim head coach Mike Miller to dole out to his trio of point guards. The veteran of the group, Elfrid Payton, is firmly entrenched in his starting role and guaranteed to play upwards of 25 minutes each night.

The backup minutes are a different story. With all three point guards healthy, Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina are battling for minutes on the second unit.

Smith’s rare chance

Fayetteville, NC native has spent the majority of the season in and out of the lineup. The tragic loss of his stepmother, injuries, and lackluster play have put Smith in a tough position as a third-year point guard.

Following an oblique injury, Smith played just under four minutes against the Los Angeles Lakers in his first game back. The next day in practice, the point guard seemed checked out and distant, providing abrupt answers to questions from reporters. He wouldn’t play in the team’s next two games.

Against the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday, Miller felt it was time to give Smith some extended burn. Although Smith didn’t take over the game during his 14 minutes of playing time, he brought energy, knocked down a few shots, and generally acquitted himself well. This was Smith’s first real opportunity to lead the second unit in over a month.

Odd time to bench Ntilikina

There were plenty of opportunities to bench Ntilikina in recent weeks. Prior to Sunday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, the French point guard was mired in a horrific shooting slump. In a span of five contests, Ntilikina had shot 5-for-32 from the field and a crooked 1-for-9 from three.

If there was ever a time to give the defensive-minded point guard a night to collect his thoughts, the Brooklyn game would have been the perfect opportunity for Miller. Alas, Ntilikina led the second-unit against the Nets—and did so with vigor.

He was 5-for-9 from the field en route to 11 points in a win over the team’s crosstown rival. Although his offensive output was the story of his game, Ntilikina also put on a clinic at how to defend Caris LeVert. He used his length to disrupt the shifty Brooklyn guard and made sure to avoid falling for convincing pump fakes.

It was odd to see Miller pull Ntilikina out of the rotation following his best game in weeks, but that decision was not as puzzling as the late-game lineup the interim head coach decided to play.

Odd time to play Ntilikina

Shockingly, Miller called Ntilikina’s number in the final minutes of a close game after the Frenchman had ridden the bench up to that point. It’s obvious that the Knicks needed a defensive stopper to help contain Charlotte’s backcourt pairing of Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier.

However, it’s not often that a coach opts to play a guy in crunch time minutes after he sat out the entire game before that.

Perhaps even more shocking than the substitution was the fact that it almost worked. Ntilikina’s defensive energy helped the Knicks make it close down the stretch. In fact, the previously ice-cold point guard knocked down a three to pull the Knicks within seven with three minutes left.

In yet another interesting wrinkle to this entire situation, Ntilikina played those final minutes alongside Payton. In the past, Miller has seemed hesitant to put multiple point guards on the floor.

What comes next?

There are plenty of questions left in regards to this point guard conundrum. Smith’s future in New York is tenuous at best. There’s a chance that his cameo in Charlotte was simply to show potential suitors that he is healthy and capable.

The trade deadline is just over a week away and the tea leaves suggest that Smith will be gone before that trade deadline is come and gone.

On the other hand, perhaps Ntilikina’s short stint alongside Payton will give Miller more confidence in playing him off the ball. This would open up an avenue for the team to give Ntilikina and Smith significant minutes off the bench.

Wednesday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies (7:30 p.m. ET) will tell us more about this point guard puzzle.

Danny Small is on Twitter @dwsmall8.

NYY

NYM

NYG

NYJ

NYK

BKN

NYR

NYI

NJD

SJU