It was good to see you again, Frank Ntilikina.
Tom Thibodeau had an opening in his 10-man rotation with starting point guard Elfrid Payton missing his first game of the season with a hamstring injury Thursday against the Kings.
Instead of moving back to Austin Rivers, Thibodeau threw a surprise and tapped the maligned French point guard whose only luck this season has been bad luck.
In his first appearance since Dec. 29, Ntilikina didn’t look rusty at all. He had three steals, scored seven points and was a plus-17 in 23:35 minutes of action as the Knicks crushed the Kings 140-121 at the giddy Garden.
“His defense was fantastic,” Tom Thibodeau said.
Ntilikina sounded afterward like he had been unleashed from being trapped in a hotel room for a week. Actually he was — in Miami — following COVID-19 contact tracing protocols. That followed a sprained knee that cost him three weeks.
“It was a long stretch,’’ said the longest-tenured Knick and their 2017 lottery pick. “There was so much happiness and motivation to do more.’’
Wearing a red “Vale’’ hat, his relief was palpable. Ntilikina will be a restricted free agent and his future is unclear.
“When you come back from a long stretch, with [Thibodeau] I’ll get more comfortable on the court,’’ Ntilikina said. “I was so happy to be on the court, to be able to compete with my teammates. I was really happy, so I had a lot of energy. I definitely felt good.’’
In his highlight play, Ntilikina stripped De’Aaron Fox, led a fast break and whipped a pass to Immanuel Quickley for a 3-pointer. Depending on Payton’s status, the Ntilikina-Quickley tandem could now be a thing.
Rivers was the lone player not to play Thursday — not even in garbage time and he expects to be traded.
“It was matchups,’’ Thibodeau said. “I wanted to get a look at Frank. We have a lot of confidence in everyone on the roster. It was Frank’s opportunity, he went in and took advantage of it and played well. He was fantastic.’’
The only down note of the evening was the clear evidence rookie Tyrese Haliburton is going to turn into a special point guard.
The Knicks had a chance to draft Haliburton with the No. 8 pick in the November draft but passed on him for Obi Toppin.
“He has been terrific for them,’’ Thibodeau said. “Very talented, gifted. Plays multiple positions, can shoot the ball. Good size. Can get into the paint. He’s having a very good season for them.’’
After scoring 16 points in January against the Knicks, Haliburton on Thursday scored 17 points with four assists, four steals and four rebounds. Toppin was mostly a nonfactor in 17 minutes other than a late skying fast-break dunk. He finished with three points.