Monday, March 1, 2021

Elfrid Payton answers challenge as Knicks clip Bulls

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The cries have been incessant recently, with fans and media wondering when Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau will alter his starting lineup to insert electrifying rookie point guard Immanuel Quickley in place of Elfrid Payton.

Payton responded with his best game in several weeks Wednesday night in Chicago, helping propel the Knicks to a 107-103 victory over the Bulls at United Center.

Payton posted 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 35 minutes — his most playing time in seven games — and Quickley added nine points in just 13 minutes.

Julius Randle connected on five 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 27 points, while RJ Barrett scored 17 for the Knicks (10-13). They didn’t reach 10 wins until their 34th game last season, when they started 10-29 and finished the year with a 21-45 mark.

Zach LaVine scored 24 points and Thaddeus Young added 19 off the bench for the Bulls, who shot just 6-for-36 (16.7 percent) from 3-point range.

But a key 3 by Reggie Bullock (nine points) and a short jumper by Payton replenished the lead to eight.

Payton played only 18 minutes in Monday’s loss, with Quickley logging 30 off the bench. But the Knicks’ starting point guard netted half of his team’s points in a 12-4 game-opening run. He finished with 10 in the opening quarter on 5-for-7 shooting, while Randle buried three straight 3-pointers late in the period, as the Knicks built a 34-17 lead.

The 10 points over the first 12 minutes matched Payton’s high output for any of his previous six games.

Payton also grabbed seven rebounds while playing the entire quarter, and Quickley dropped in a runner in the opening minute of the second. Fellow rookie Obi Toppin also nailed a 3 when he first entered the game and then another jumper for his five points in 10 minutes.

Quickley’s recent offensive surge — 20.6 points per game over his previous five appearances — moved the No. 25-overall pick in the draft into second place among all NBA rookies in scoring (12.6 ppg overall), despite playing fewer than 20 minutes (19.7) per outing. He trails only No. 1-overall selection Anthony Edwards of the Timberwolves at 13.6 points per game.

The Bulls closed to within 10 on a Lavine jumper midway through the second quarter.

Thibodeau had stressed before the game the importance of avoiding such letdowns.

“You have to bring the energy for the entire game,” Thibodeau said. “If you have one breakdown, one guy is slow getting back, one guy complaining to the official, whether it be frustration, thinking you got fouled, you end up giving up an open shot or a layup.

“We can’t afford to do that. So we have to have discipline. There’s going to be missed calls, there will be some frustration. Get back. If you have a point to make to an official, do it during a dead ball. You can’t do it while the game is going on.”

The Bulls continued to misfire from 3-point range, missing their first six attempts to open the third quarter. Chicago did climb back within nine with 2:22 left in the period, but subsequent 3s by Quickley and Randle (his fifth) provided the Knicks to a 91-76 lead heading into the final quarter.

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