Kemba Walker poured out his pent-up energy and emotions on the TD Garden floor, his home for the last two years before a feel-good New York homecoming that has turned sour.
It took a COVID-19-gutted Knicks roster and a Derrick Rose ankle injury for Walker to get out of the doghouse. And he seized the moment like it was his last.
Walker had a season-high 29 points, but in the end, a sacrifice foul robbed him a ‘Cardiac Kemba’ moment.
Evan Fournier, Walker’s teammate from Celtics to Knicks, tweaked his ankle after pushing the Knicks within five, 109-104, with over two minutes left. Walker made a duty foul to stop the clock that allowed them to check in on Fournier. But to his surprise, it was his sixth foul, unceremoniously ending his electric return to the court after nine games at the end of the bench.
“I was told to foul,” Walker said via ESPN. “I’m not gonna lie: I didn’t know I had five. But I heard them on the sideline, they told me to foul. Very, very unfortunate situation, but that’s what I was told to do.”
It was an emotional return for Walker in Boston — after the Celtics unceremoniously shipped him last summer that signaled the start of Walker’s downtrodden year — and to the Knicks rotation — after eight straight CD-DNP (did not play due to coach’s decision).
The Celtics fans’ gave him an ovation during the pregame introduction but sarcastically waved him goodbye when he fouled out. That, in a nutshell, summed up Walker’s career in the last two years.
Walker had a great start with the Celtics, earning his fourth All-Star selection until knee injuries robbed him of his time and his athleticism on the court. The Knicks took a flier on him after agreeing to a contract buyout with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Walker signed a two-year worth $17.9 million deal, trumpeted as a great value pickup for a Knicks front office looking to bolster their offense around first-time All-Star and All-NBA forward Julius Randle.
It looked like a fairy tale run as the Knicks raced to a 5-1 start. But it was short-lived. The Knicks went spiraling, and Walker became the scapegoat though advanced metrics and numbers supported it.
Tom Thibodeau, a defensive guru, opted for more size, elevating 6-6 Alec Burks for the 6-0 Walker. But the Knicks were 2-7 since Walker’s demotion, though some of those games were competitive, and the last four, they were shorthanded with the COVID-19 outbreak.
Six players are under health and safety protocols, including Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride, two defensive-minded rookies who impressed Thibodeau and pushed for their case to make the rotation.
Walker knows he’s only a placeholder despite his scintillating return to the court.
“I hate it,” Walker said of not playing in the last nine games. “I want to play. “It is what it is. Guys went down. I got to fill in. Do what I can until they get back.”
Without directly saying, Walker knows his future is somewhere else.
But history hasn’t been kind on injury-riddled, pint-sized guards as they age.
Another former Celtic point guard Isaiah Thomas is a cautionary tale. While Thomas has recently hooked up with the Los Angeles Lakers, the harsh reality is, teams around the league aren’t high on small guards who can be a liability on defense.
Four days since Walker became trade-eligible, there has been no traction on the trade market. That speaks volumes on how low Walker’s value has dropped around the league. Last summer, the Celtics attached a first-round draft pick to get rid of his max contract in exchange for Al Horford.
“It’s definitely been a rough couple years, to be honest,” Walker said via ESPN. “But, you know, when you get a chance to kind of slow down and think about things, myself, you know, I think it’s just some adversity. At some point in life, everyone goes through tough times.
“I’ve had a great career thus far, and a lot of things went my way. It’s a tough time right now, so it’s really about just showing my character, showing who I really am. I’m so mentally tough, I feel like I’m built for any situation, and I’m going to handle it the best I can. I’ve got a great support system, great family, great friends who help me stay humble and stay grounded, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. Just try to be unbreakable and continue to put my work in and just stay ready for anything that comes my way.”
Walker showed he can still be explosive in spurts as he did in an electrifying third quarter. He led a Knicks 17-2 run to overhaul a 15-point halftime deficit.
“He played really well,” Thibodeau said of Walker. “Really well. Thatâ€™s what heâ€™s supposed to do. Heâ€™s a pro, great character and played well.â€
When his shots are falling, and he’s attacking the rim with reckless abandon (he had a season-high 8 of 10 free throws), Walker provides value exceeding his current contract. But there’s always a question mark about his health that drags his consistency to make an impact.
In his return, Walker finished with +5 plus-minus, meaning the Knicks outscored the Celtics by five for the entirety of his season-high 37 minutes on the floor. But in the fourth quarter, where the Celtics regained control, he was 0 for 3 from the field and a -7 in his final 10 minutes on the floor. His sacrifice foul robbed him to atone for that and make one more ‘Cardiac Kemba’ highlight.
But that’s who Walker is. He’s the ultimate pro, as Thibodeau and his Knicks teammates described him. Walker has always been about the team, not himself. But as his career is winding down with limited opportunities, it’s time for Walker to look out for himself.
The dogmatic Thibodeau turned diplomatic when asked if he would reconsider bringing Walker back into the regular rotation following the point guard’s inspiring performance in Boston.
“We’ll see, we’ll see like you gotta look everything in totality,” Thibodeau said.
For what’s it worth, this rare opportunity to get back on the floor, born out of dire circumstances, was Walker’s audition for the rest of the league.
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