Kemba Walker’s return to New York to play for his hometown Knicks was initially met with mixed reactions.
On the one hand, there was a palpable excitement that the Knicks’ biggest hole would finally be filled by one of the finest New York-bred point guards. But on the other hand, there was also cynical skepticism owing to the past injuries that are fast catching up with him.
Walker’s underwhelming first three games as a Knick only reinforced those doubts. But in an early matchup against one of the Eastern Conference heavyweights, Walker erased them with an All-Star caliber play.
After averaging only 10.3 points in the Knicks’ 2-1 start, the 31-year old Walker, a four-time NBA All-Star, scored a season-high 19 points on five three-pointers and five assists to power the Knicks to cruise to a 112-99 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks improved to 3-1 and snapped a 15-game losing spell to the Sixers since Carmelo Anthony’s final game with the franchise in 2017.
After missing his first three shots, Walker caught fire, leading the Knicks’ huge second-quarter surge. In a two-and-a-half-minute stretch, Walker’s 10 straight points blew up the Knicks’ lead to 20 at halftime after trailing by three at the end of the first stanza.
New York outscored Philadelphia, 39-16, in that pivotal quarter.
Walker picked up from where he left off, adding nine points after the first half. The Knicks enjoyed their largest lead, 83-56, on Walker’s back-to-back three-pointer that rocked the Garden.
“I was waiting for that moment,’’ said Walker of his breakthrough game in front of his family, friends, some college and high school teammates, and coaches. “I was waiting for that moment. It was the kind of moment I dreamed of when I was a young kid wanting to be in the NBA, watching the Knicks play, coming to a Knicks game, and seeing how the crowd goes crazy. That was a great moment for me.’’
After watching Derrick Rose closed out the Knicks’ first three games, Walker finally earned the minutes down the stretch and made sure there was no Sixers comeback, unlike their shocking loss to a young Orlando Magic two nights earlier.
“I wouldn’t say it was a relief but it definitely felt good. It was fun. Hopefully, we can have more moments like that,” said Walker who reiterated he had no qualms sitting on the bench down the stretch.
The Knicks returned to playing fun basketball with crisp ball movement that froze the 76ers’ defense.
Their 24 assists on 41 field goals, including 16 of 37 three-point attempts, were a testament to their unselfish play. They had a sizzling start, sinking 15 of their first 23 attempts from downtown.
Their 70 three-pointers made during their 3-1 start tied the 2020-21 Bucks’ record for most makes through the first 4 games of a season in NBA history, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Julius Randle did not have to do the heavy lifting as Walker led five Knicks players in double figures. All 10 players Tom Thibodeau used in the game scored at least four points.
Randle flirted with a triple-double (16 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists), while Evan Fournier came through with 18 points, four threes, and four assists. Derrick Rose again led the Knicks’ bench with 13 points.
“That’s what I love about our team. We have great depth,” Thibodeau said. “Tonight I thought the way Kemba played helped set the tone. Julius was unbelievable in terms of making plays early. That made us unselfish and we all got into a rhythm and we played hard.”
Even Sixers coach Doc Rivers was in awe of the Knicks’ much-improved offense.
“Clearly they’re a better offensive team because they have more shot makers. They have more playmakers,” Rivers said. “That’s one thing about Kemba and Fournier. They’re not just scorers. They’re playmakers and the more playmakers you can add to a team, the better. We didn’t have any playmakers tonight.”
The Sixers could have used one more playmaker and a defensive stopper in Ben Simmons. But the versatile All-Star is out indefinitely as he claims he is still not mentally ready yet to rejoin the team after an ugly fallout last summer.
‘Where is Ben Simmons?’ chants from a good Tuesday night Garden crowd added salt to the Sixers’ injury.
With one less headache, the Knicks’ defense focused on Sixers’ All-Star center Joel Embiid, who was questionable to play before the game due to knee soreness. A bulkier and much stronger Mitchell Robinson played solid one-on-one defense against Embiid. A perfectly timed occasional help defense from the weak side cut off Embiid’s passing lanes, forcing him to commit five turnovers. Embiid struggled with 14 points on 2-of-7 shooting and six rebounds in 31 minutes.
The Knicks also put the clamps on Seth Curry, who ended up with just four points on 2-of-6 shooting after exploding for 28 two nights ago in Oklahoma City. Tobias Harris led Philadelphia with 23 points.
It was the type of response Thibodeau was expecting from his team following their slip-up against the Magic.
“Long before the ball went up tonight, immediately after the [loss to Orlando], I could tell [we’d have a good game],’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We knew we didn’t play well. We got a real group of serious-minded guys. I could tell that night, the next day and last night, the gym was packed with people working. I knew this would be a good test for us.’’
But the tests keep on coming. On Thursday, they will face Thibodeau’s old team, Chicago Bulls, who are off to their best start since 1996.
Both the Knicks and Bulls’ hot starts have pushed the league to add their early showdown for the Eastern Conference’s top spot to NBA TV’s schedule. It could rekindle their rivalry in the 90s when Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Patrick Ewing’s Knicks were the fiercest playoff rivals in the Eastern Conference.
But following a feel-good win like this, Thibodeau warned his team about slacking off like how they played against the Magic in New York after crushing them in Orlando.
“It doesn’t stop,’’ Thibodeau said. “We can’t feel good about tonight. We go to Chicago to play an undefeated team that’s loaded and playing really well. We’ll have to play our best.’’
On the heels of Walker’s breakthrough game for the Knicks, his matchup against Lonzo Ball will also come with intrigue. Ball was on the Knicks’ radar for their starting point guard role as far as the February trade deadline last season.
Then the Bulls snatched Ball with a fat $85-million, four-year contract in a sign-and-trade with the New Orleans Pelicans last summer. On the other hand, Walker fell on the Knicks’ lap on a much cheaper $18-million, two-year deal after his contract buyout with Oklahoma City Thunder.
It will be another opportunity for Walker and the Knicks to shut down the outside noise.
“Those guys are playing really, really well. It’s gonna be a dogfight,” Walker said.
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