Call it the Knicksmas Day miracle.
The New York Knicks could not have wrapped a perfect Christmas gift for their win-starved fans.
The Knicks’ methodical 101-87 victory over a decimated Atlanta Hawks team can be easily downplayed because of the absence of star villain Trae Young and several key starters. But for those who are wired, the Knicks made a statement win. This is by far their most significant win and could be a turning point of the season marred so far by disappointments.
For the first time, the Knicks’ stars aligned. Their 19-3 start was everything the New York front office envisioned when they’d added Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier in the offseason.
All five starters scored in that sizzling start on a cold Christmas day. Walker, Fournier, and RJ Barrett each hit a triple while Julius Randle made his first two of a season-high six three-pointers. Mitchell Robinson contributed a slam dunk off Walker’s brilliant playmaking.
Walker capped his best week as a Knick with a triple-double. Randle regained his shooting touch. Fournier got going.
After three weeks of not hearing his name, Walker was serenaded with ‘Kemba Walker’ chants when he checked out with 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists. Randle led the Knicks with 25 points on an efficient 9 of 15 shooting and tied Fournier (15 points on 6 of 12 shots) with a team-best +21 plus-minus rating.
Walker‘s resurgence from the end of the bench is New York’s biggest story. But equally important is Randle’s acceptance of Walker as the central figure that holds the key to this team moving forward.
— Fireside Knicks (@FiresideKnicks) December 25, 2021
During the postgame interview with the ABC/ESPN broadcast, Randle acknowledged Walker as the heart and soul of the team.
“I think we’re just feeding off each other,” Randle told reporters in the postgame presser. “I think we were deferring a little too much or trying to figure out how to play with each other, and those things take time. We kind of got a second shot at it.”
It’s been sweeter the second time around.
The Knicks were 1-9 during Walker’s banishment. They have split their four games since his return.
“I’m over it,” Walker said of his benching. “It doesn’t matter anymore at this point. I just take it as a blessing. I think it was a blessing in disguise, to be honest.”
“God just works in mysterious ways, man. He’s blessed me. He’s helped me stay humble, grounded, and he just got me through a tough situation. I just continued to work, and time went on, and guys go down, and I’m back. [The] first game against my old team, I’m back in the starting lineup, and the rest is history from there. Everything happens for a reason.”
New York coach Tom Thibodeau had a different reason when he yanked Walker out of the rotation. Thibodeau said that he only did what he thought was the best for the team, adding that he wanted to add size to the point of attack.
When Randle signed a $117 million extension in the offseason, it was trumpeted as his token to help the Knicks organization maintain flexibility to add a co-star that will make them a contender.
While Walker, with his balky knees, isn’t the co-star he would have expected, the former four-time All-Star represented the dynamic scoring and playmaking they sorely lacked in their first-round exit in last season’s playoffs. Walker’s charming homecoming story was celebrated, but 20 games into the season, his fit next to Randle was questioned as losses piled up.
Thibodeau essentially picked Randle over Walker. And it took a COVID-19 outbreak and a Derrick Rose ankle surgery to give the Knicks a second shot at making the Randle-Walker pairing work.
A move out of desperation has become a source of inspiration.
The Knicks’ image around the league took a hit with every Walker sympathy. It was such a bad look for an organization wanting to attract top-flight stars and to Randle who couldn’t adjust next to a ball-dominant star.
Walker seized the opportunity. Thibodeau noticed that his starting point guard returned with an aggressive approach that wasn’t there in his first 18 games.
“I have,” Walker said. “That’s the exact mindset I’ve had. Just come out and be aggressive. I just have a tendency to kind of not want to step on toes, and I think that’s what I did early on. I was here, and I wasn’t being as aggressive. But I think being out and seeing how the game has been going and flowing put me in a different mindset.”
Walker came back a changed man.
He averaged 26.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, and seven assists since Thibodeau re-inserted him to the rotation. He’s doubled his three-point attempts, shooting 39.5 percent of a staggering 10.8 attempts per game. His 5.8 free throw attempts are proof of the change in his mindset. Most importantly, the Knicks have outscored their opponents by 9.3 during Walker’s 40.2 minutes on the floor.
It was a stark contrast to his career-low numbers in his first 18 games: 11.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 free throw attempts, and the most damning of it all, his -122 plus-minus total.
“I’m happy for him. As a teammate, as a brother, I’m happy for him that he’s able to come out and be who he is. I’m sure when he signed to come here, this is kind of what he envisioned, playing the type of basketball he’s playing right now,” Randle said of Walker’s remarkable turnaround. “So I think we just honestly feed off each other, and the team will go as we go.”
Randle embraced the opportunity — a great sign of maturity. It was just one game, but the Knicks have finally unlocked how they can make it work. It’s just a matter of consistency.
When that happens, this Knicksmas Day miracle will turn into the gift that keeps on giving.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo