PORTLAND, Ore. — David Fizdale will never know whether anything would have changed had point guard Elfrid Payton not sustained a freak hamstring strain in the season’s fourth game, forcing him to miss 17 straight contests.
Maybe, maybe not. But those close to Fizdale believe he needs a playmaking point guard for the way he wants to play and for his offense to click best.
Payton may have reemerged as a potential starter down the road after dazzling in his second game back from injury Saturday in interim coach Mike Miller’s NBA coaching debut.
For now, Miller said Payton is on a minutes restriction.
“He’s still returning and not total go yet,’’ Miller said after Sunday’s practice here. “He gave us a great lift with that group, started with the second unit, finished with the first unit. Games will dictate those things.”
Payton said his wind is there, but the team is holding him back this early.
“I don’t get tired,’’ Payton said. “It’s precaution.”
With Miller rolling him out for the entire fourth quarter, Payton looked a little like he did in the season opener in San Antonio as he racked up nine points, seven assists, three steals, one block and just one turnover in 17 minutes of court time in the 104-103 loss to the Pacers.
Looking so much better than his two point-guard compatriots, current starter Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr., it wouldn’t be shocking if Miller makes the move soon to start Payton.
“I did a decent job — played well in the fourth,’’ Payton said. “Just playing the game the right way. Taking what the game gives me.’’
Payton began the season coming off the bench before earning the starting nod following his gem against the Spurs.
“He played really well,’’ said Miller. “You could see the things that he was doing in terms of directing people and putting people in positions. The pace of getting downhill. I thought some of the defensive plays, like the steal he had for the layup [in the fourth quarter] was a big play at the time. He showed what a heady player he is.”
Politically, Payton is not high on the charts. Ntilikina is the franchise’s 2017 lottery pick and the Knicks picked up his fourth-year option for $6.2 million. Smith, selected one spot later in the same draft at No. 9 by Dallas, was the cornerstone piece of the Kristaps Porzingis trade.
But if you judged their work in the loss to Indiana, it was evident who the most accomplished of the trio is. Ntilikina, who has started for nearly a month, was 1 of 5 from the field, missing both his 3-pointers and finishing with two points in 19 minutes.
Smith, whose outside shooting has not improved this season, was 0-for-5, missing his lone 3-pointer, in 11:39. He totaled one point with one assist and two turnovers. Smith is shooting 32 percent for the season.
Though he was rusty in his first game back against Denver, his second possession was noteworthy. Payton dribbled at the top of the key and tossed up a beautiful alley-oop lob for center Mitchell Robinson for the dunk. It is doubtful either Ntilikina or Smith could have threaded the needle on such a difficult play.
Like Fizdale at the season’s outset, Miller is juggling three point guards. The organization still is unclear about the future of the position. In fact, when the trade season heats up beginning Dec. 15, when players who signed as free agents this past offseason can be dealt, it will be a position of intrigue for the Knicks. Payton could be traded after signing a one-year guarantee for $8 million.
If anything, this is a chance to boost Payton’s trade stock by starting him or finding out if he’s part of the future. Payton, 25, was traded on draft day in 2014 to Scott Perry and the Magic and, The Post reported, was all but promised the starting nod when he signed.
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