Knicks show promise in season-opening loss to Spurs

SAN ANTONIO — Knicks coach David Fizdale’s decision to experiment by starting rookie RJ Barrett at point guard in the season opener backfired, but he quickly realized his error.
Fizdale reversed course with a super-steady Elfrid Payton to start the second half at point guard and the Knicks looked very competitive after the first quarter.

In fact, the Knicks were looking poised to steal one against the Spurs at AT&T Center, leading by six points with 8:20 left.

However, the Spurs punched the game away with an 18-0 fourth-quarter spree, aided by back-to-back corner 3s by Bryan Forbes and Dejounte Murray, to post a 120-111 victory Wednesday.

The Knicks fell behind early, trailed by 16 points in the second quarter before rallying, leading by six points early in the fourth quarter after two Kevin Knox 3-pointers and a Payton 17-footer.

The Spurs, 10½-point favorites, dominated the final nine minutes despite a large amount of positive Knicks’ developments. The Spurs rallied to shoot 51 percent after the Knicks played good defense for the first three quarters.

Julius Randle in his Knicks debut powered in 25 points, Marcus Morris shook off the boos to pour in 26 and Barrett, once he got out of the point-guard role, excelled and finished his NBA debut with 21 points in 35 minutes.

But it was Payton who provided the intangible spark when the Knicks looked like decent team. He wound up with 11 points, eight assists and five steals, finishing a plus-14, and was on the bench for a part of the Spurs’ game-busting run.

Fizdale backed away from his Barrett stunner to start the second half by putting in Payton after he brought the Knicks to life in the second period.

The Knicks rallied to within 59-51 at halftime after falling behind 36-20 early in the second quarter. The Knicks started the game shooting 1 of 11 and fell behind 10-2 with Barrett as field general.

The Knicks shot 7 of 25 in the first quarter, but were scrappy enough on defense to be within 22-15.

Barrett got the surprise nod as starting point guard sharing the backcourt with Allonzo Trier. It didn’t work and Barrett looked uncomfortable with that extra responsibility of bringing the ball upcourt.

In the opening two minutes, he had his backcourt pass knocked away and Trey Lyles picked it up for a fast-break layup. Barrett also missed two jumpers at the outset, but settled in only after he switched to shooting guard when Dennis Smith Jr. checked into the game with 5:46 left in the quarter.

Smith, though, was erratic and it wasn’t until Payton, also making his Knicks debut, was inserted in the second quarter that the offense looked organized. Payton probably locked up the starting point-guard job for Friday’s game against the Nets as he was pushing the pace, shared the ball and knocked balls away. He also didn’t have a turnover.

Payton stole the ball and went in for a layup to highlight his early run. Frank Ntilikina was the odd point-guard out in the first half, but he came on briefly late in the third quarter when Payton ran in the foul trouble.

Morris predictably was booed loudly during player introductions and on the first possession when he got the ball in the low post. He sank the turnaround jumper and finished with 17 points in the half.

The fans’ venom — and coach Gregg Popovich’s — stems from Morris backing out of a verbal commitment to the Spurs to sign with the Knicks. Popovich clarified a remark before the game when he called the incident “unprofessional on many levels,” indicating he was also blaming the Knicks for their actions.

Popovich got the last laugh Wednesday.

For more from Marc Berman, listen to this episode of the Knicks podcast, “Big Apple Buckets”:

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