Guards Bear Watching Down the Stretch

The Knicks have a chance tonight to accomplish something they haven’t done since the end of January – win consecutive games.

After blasting the Charlotte Hornets 124-101 on Saturday, the Knicks host the Chicago Bulls at The World’s Most Famous Arena. Winning two straight may not seem like a significant accomplishment but everything the Knicks do as this season wraps up has to be viewed through the long lens.

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The players and coaches have been adamant about playing to win. That four letter word, ‘tank,’ is an expletive. So blowing out the Hornets and snapping a nine-game losing streak was good medicine.

“That message was one of the keys to maybe wake some players on this team, wake everybody up,’’ said rookie Frank Ntilikina said. “We were just tired of losing.’’

The fact Ntilikina, who scored a career-high 15 points, was the player making that statement also is significant. Regardless of whether the French Prince finds his role at point guard, shooting guard or combo guard, he clearly is one of the young, athletic building blocks on the Knicks.

“I thought he was great,’’ said Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek. “He took the shots. He was confident with his moves. He didn’t hesitate. When he played off the ball and a guy threw it to him, he shot.’’

I wrote several weeks ago that you shouldn’t analyze the point guard position on a game-by-game basis. But recent developments – including Ntilikina’s career-high – warrant another look at that vital position.

First of all, Hornacek said the position remains an open competition. Management seems to have refined what it’s looking for in the team’s point guard of the future.

“Who are those guys who will give us winning plays?’’ Hornacek said. “Who will be the guys who really care about it? Nothing is guaranteed next year for anybody. So they should be out there trying to show Scott [Perry, GM] and Steve [Mills, President] and myself to be worthy of coming back because we know they can do that.”

Ntilikina has been consistent in an inconsistent way. His offense is spotty. The night before he dropped 15 on Charlotte, he failed to score in 13 minutes against the 76ers.

Again, long lens: Ntilikina is 19 with a terrific frame, a high basketball IQ and a determination to make himself into an elite NBA player.

“New York has got a foundation piece with him,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle told reporters recently. “He’s not putting up big numbers, but he is an excellent defender. His recognition of situations and his shooting, all that stuff, is going to take quantum leaps.”

Emmanuel Mudiay has gotten the most starts at point guard. His physical build, 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, suggest he could be a force. In the win over Charlotte, he only scored seven points but grabbed five rebounds, dished three assists, had one blocked shot and one steal.

Mudiay hasn’t proved he’s a good enough shooter (37.5% from the field; 32% on threes for his career) to play off the ball. And he doesn’t seem to be a natural decision-maker.

Some of this can be attributed to the fact that he never played college ball. He could really benefit from working with the Knicks player development team, which is a big part of the Mills-Perry plan.

Trey Burke established himself in the G-League has an offensive hot rod and he hasn’t taken his foot off the pedal since the Knicks brought him up. Burke would love to nail down the starting point guard job but he might be more of an asset providing instant offense off the bench.

The key in this scenario is Ntilikina. The Knicks took him with the Knicks took him with the 8th pick in last year’s draft. His professionalism has been impressive for a player so young.

When Hornacek reduced his minutes against Philly and Charlotte because he didn’t like Ntilikina’s matchup against the taller Ben Simmons and Nicolas Batum, the rookie expressed his competitiveness.

“As a competitor, I won’t agree with that because that would make myself be … I don’t know how to say in English … but you know me, I just want to take every challenge,’’ he said. “That’s the coach’s job and coach’s decision to put whoever he thinks is the better matchup on the court.

“But as a player, we all gotta be ready when he calls you. And I was ready when he called me and that will be the (approach) every night.”

The Knicks have 12 games remaining. Every win brings its own reward. And every chance for Ntilikina, Mudiay and Burke to prove their value is a precious opportunity.

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