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As the Knicks begin their four-game road trip in Cleveland on Tuesday, Frank Ntilikina has won the backup point guard job.
The 2017 lottery pick has captured it by injury default and also by his 19-minute performance Sunday. Finally getting legitimate minutes, Ntilikina registered an astounding 4-for-4 from the 3-point line in a 12-point outing. He, too, had put up extra shots after the Sixers loss at the Garden, joining Elfrid Payton.
Ntilikina has always had decent form on his jump shot, but entered his fourth season with a spotty career 3-point percentage of 31 percent. It’s been a French mystery.
And then came Sunday versus the Bucks and the 6-foot-5 combo guard couldn’t miss.
“Working [on it] is the key,” Ntilikina said. “The answer to probably everything in this game is probably work and just treat it with confidence. That confidence comes with preparation. Preparation is work. That’s what I’m going to do every day. Just trying to be better every day, in order to be the best player I can become in the future.”
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t go to Ntilikina in the season opener until the start of the fourth quarter despite the injury to original rookie backup point guard Immanuel Quickley. He lasted five ineffective minutes and got yanked.
Thibodeau’s first instinct had been to shift wing Alec Burks to point guard in Indiana. Then, in the home opener, Thibodeau tabbed Dennis Smith Jr. as first point guard off the bench and Ntilikina mopped up the final two minutes of a Sixers’ blowout.
Now there’s no real choice. Smith stayed in New York to deal with a bruised quad — another injury marring his Knicks’ career.
In addition, Quickley is still out with a bruised hip. Austin Rivers (pulled groin) is not yet ready to make his Knicks debut after going through two-on-two contact drills Monday — which he hadn’t done since training camp opened. And Burks may miss the game with an ankle sprain.
A week after being bypassed for a rookie contract extension, Ntilikina has locked up the backup point guard job until further notice.
Asked about not getting legitimate minutes in the first two games, Ntilikina said, “It’s the story of an NBA season. Today’s my fourth season and what I learned is that an NBA season is really long and you need everybody on your roster to be ready each and every night because a lot of things can happen. … My job is just to make sure I’m ready every night for when my coach calls me and my teammates need me.’’
Burks twisted his ankle in the 130-110 blowout of the Bucks and is questionable Tuesday.
Coming off the bench, Burks scored 15 of his 18 points in the first half, hitting 4 of 5 from 3-point range. On the season, Burks is averaging 20.7 points, 3.7 assists and 3.7 rebounds. He’s shooting 53.1 percent — 66.7 percent from 3. He’s clearly the Knicks best free-agent signing.
The NBA did the Knicks no favors with this pandemic schedule forcing them onto a four-game road trip — Cleveland, Toronto (in Tampa), Indiana and Atlanta. The NBA has given teams extra safety protocols for road trips, including not leaving the hotel unless it’s to an approved location.
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