DENVER — Even president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry underestimated what point guard Elfrid Payton brought to the table upon his return.
Otherwise, just maybe, Knicks braintrust would have held off before firing coach David Fizdale nine days ago following their 37-point loss to Denver.
That marked Payton’s rusty return from a 17-game absence. The Knicks fell to 4-18. In his first minute, Payton hit Mitchell Robinson for a nice alley-oop but then committed four turnovers in limited duty.
The Knicks (6-20) face the mighty Nuggets (15-8) in a rematch Sunday to conclude their four-game West Coast trip. A lot has changed.
Fizdale was fired the day after the Denver rout. Mike Miller is the interim head coach, and Payton is his go-to, clutch closer who has given the Knicks life — the first two-game winning streak of the season.
Payton spearheaded the Knicks’ 31-21, fourth-quarter comeback that allowed them to escape Sacramento with a giddy, 103-101 victory on Friday night.
“He’s a monster, man,’’ Julius Randle said. “When he’s playing like that, he’s a monster and tough to deal with, pushing the pace. I know he’s exhausted over there having to chase Buddy [Hield] all game. That’s not an easy task. He got it done on both ends. I’m extremely proud of him how he competes.’’
According to an NBA source, Randle felt his transition to New York could have been made smoother had Payton not gotten hurt in the season’s fourth game.
Randle, who scored an efficient 26 points in Sacramento, had struggled against double teams. Payton and Randle were an intriguing duo in New Orleans last season.
“They played well together,’’ the source said. “[Payton] gets him easier shots.’’
And that serves for others. In Sacramento, Payton was a big shotmaker, scoring 13 of his 16 points in the second half. He also notched four assists to zero turnovers.
Miller called him ‘a floor general’’ who excelled in “clock management’’ down the stretch, adding he “kept us organized.’’ “He had another outstanding game,’’ Miller added.
Robinson also has benefited. He notched 14 points off the bench.
“We got that 504 connect,’’ Robinson said of the New Orleans’ area code. “It’s great. He looks for me. I get him open too sometimes. It’s a back-and-forth kind of thing.
“He come and do his thing,’’ Robinson added. “He’s a great point guard and leader. I respect this guy. He get us in game rhythm.’’
Payton, who attended Louisiana-Lafayette and grew up in the Big Easy, said on media day he once tried to recruit the Chalmette (La.) High product to an AAU team Payton managed, but couldn’t get him.
Robinson playfully denied it.
“He lied, though,’’ Robinson said. “He didn’t recruit me. His team left me. We met up. His team left me. Ask him why they left me? I’m dead serious.”
Robinson is glad they are together now. The 25-year-old Payton, signed to a one-year deal last July, has also made it easier for Miller, who is 2-2 as head coach.
“It’s different vibe because we’re winning,’’ Payton said. “We’ve always been together. The train’s in the right direction, but we can’t take a step back.’’
With Payton’s emergence, Miller faces a point guard conundrum. Does he start Payton or keep the flow going with Frank Ntilikina starting and the former Orlando lottery pick finishing? And how does he handle the “Dennis Smith Situation.”
After a 10-game losing streak, the Knicks have won both games sans Smith.
The 2017 Dallas lottery pick missed the Golden State victory with a migraine. He was healthy in Sacramento, but Miller didn’t play him even though at the morning shootaround he talked at length about wanting to use three point guards.
Miller’s excuse was diplomatic, though a little inaccurate. Miller said his reversal was due to Payton’s solid play. However, in the first half, Payton and the Knicks were not playing well, and Miller still kept Smith pinned to the last seat on the bench.
“He got cleared to play,’’ Miller said. “We believe in all our guys. As that game got going, Elfrid got rolling and took more minutes. Every game presents something different.’’
Chances are, Smith will watch in Denver, even if he’s the keystone piece of the Kristaps Porzingis trade and Miller commended his “downhill’’ ability. Miller wants to be a “downhill,’’ penetrating team, but Payton and Ntilikina provide timely defense that Smith does not. Plus Smith’s outside jumper appears broken.
Removing Smith from the rotation is not the politically correct move. But everyone, including Mills, is trying to save their jobs. Winning has taken priority over politics.