Just last week, everybody wondered where the banished New York Knicks starting point guard Kemba Walker was heading next. But the hometown kid refused to let his celebrated homecoming story end in a disheartening fashion. The consummate pro that he is, Walker stayed ready.
A nine straight, healthy DNPs could have shattered any player’s confidence. But not Walker, born and raised in a tough hood in the Bronx.
“I’m built for this,” said Walker last week.
His cheerful disposition and professional approach to the volatile situation became a source of inspiration.
Ultimate professional https://t.co/aLDPNwVg6u
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) December 24, 2021
You can’t knock a good man down. Fate has its quirky way of delivering good karma.
A COVID-outbreak and a Derrick Rose’s ankle injury that required surgery gave Walker the opening he needed to get out of the doghouse. And he’s played like a mad dog.
“He’s one of our leaders,” Walker said of Rose. He’s been playing extremely well. We’re gonna miss him for sure. But you know, that’s the way this league works. Guys, unfortunately, go through injuries. Next man up.”
Walker wasn’t only the next man up. But he turned into the Knicks’ main man.
The All-Star point guard from his Charlotte days and the kid that rocked the Garden during his stellar run from Rice High School, Gauchos to UConn, returned to claim his rightful place.
Three games later, Walker has cemented his spot in Tom Thibodeau’s rotation.
He delivered big game after big game that crescendoed in a season-high 44-point explosion in Knicks’ 124-117 loss to the Washington Wizards Thursday night at the Garden.
It took two Kyle Kuzma dagger 3s to rip the hearts of Walker and the Knicks inside the final two minutes.
“He played a monster game,” Thibodeau said of Walker, “but we came out with a loss. So it’s a shame to waste that type of effort with a game like that.”
Their shameful defense allowed Kuzma to walk into rhythm threes after missing his first six attempts. Thibodeau didn’t offer any excuse. He admitted to what everyone saw.
“Oh yeah, it was very poor,” Thibodeau said of their defense. “We didn’t have control of the ball. We didn’t have a stance and vision on a weak side. So, it’s gonna be hard to win like that.”
For a while, it looked like Walker was poised to give the Knicks their first win streak since Halloween. He had the Garden rocking and chanting his name again after a scintillating 23-point second quarter that ended with a fallaway jumper before the buzzer.
Cardiac Kemba now showing at the Garden. pic.twitter.com/iaHxJdHFl0
— Fireside Knicks (@FiresideKnicks) December 24, 2021
The Knicks sat on a 64-57 cushion at halftime.
“It felt great,” Walker said. “It was a good time. I really wish we could’ve won, to be honest. It’s always tough when you play really well like that and don’t come out on top. It was definitely a very special night.”
Things fell apart in the third quarter as the Wizards grabbed the lead on a 12-0 run. The Knicks veered away from what worked in the first half. The ball stopped moving, just like in their earlier losses.
“That’s one of the things they do with their switching [defense],” Thibodeau said of the Wizards, “and that’s where you got to be careful not to turn it into an isolation game. You got to keep it moving or when you get the penetrations is to spray it out.”
But Thibodeau thought they had good sequences of great ball movement that led to wide-open threes which didn’t fall.
The Knicks only logged two assists on an ugly 8 of 22 shooting in that third quarter of doom. Julius Randle, Evan Fournier, and Walker each missed three-point attempts at the height of the Wizards’ run. But Walker recovered and dropped 13 more points late that kept the Knicks within striking distance, 90-86, heading into the payoff period.
“When you’re shorthanded like we are right now, we can’t afford not to play with great intensity on every possession. So, that’s where are,” Thibodeau lamented.
RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, and Quentin Grimes were cleared from health and safety protocols. But it was only Toppin who saw limited action. The high-leaping forward produced only two points, three rebounds against three fouls in 13 minutes.
Thibodeau held Barrett out for conditioning reasons while Grimes got cleared late Thursday that the rookie couldn’t squeeze in practice before the game. Newcomers Damyean Dotson and Danuel House, Jr. played spot-up minutes.
But the Knicks could have survived if Walker was fresh down the stretch.
Playing a season-high 43 minutes, Walker lost steam in the fourth quarter. He missed five of his last six shots. Nevertheless, he proved that he’s still an elite player when given the opportunity.
Over his last three games, since he returned to the active lineup, Walker is averaging 31.3 points on a tremendous 44/44/91 shooting splits, 7.7 rebounds, and 5.3 assists against a single turnover in a jaw-dropping 40 minutes. The Knicks have outscored their opponents by 18 during Walker’s staggering minutes on the floor.
His balky knees have held up so far. It’s not sustainable given his injury history, but with the impending return of Immanuel Quickley and rookie Miles McBride, Walker’s minutes are expected to drop to manage his knees.
What won’t return is the passiveness that defined his lackadaisical start to his New York tenure.
Walker is no longer just a spot-up jump-shooting point guard. He’s abandoned the ‘trying to fit in with the team’ mentality. The benching has awakened the monster in Walker. His usage rate picked up, hitting the 30s twice during the three-game stretch. Walker is no longer deferring to Randle. Instead, he’s completely taken over this decimated Knicks team.
Since his return, he’s made 19 of 21 free throws — proof that he’s back to his good old days of attacking the rim and bending the defenses to find angles for his shots and his teammates. Before his benching, Walker had only racked up 20 of 25 free throws in 18 games.
The Garden, the place where Walker had his Cardiac Kemba signature moment that jettisoned him into the NCAA glory and NBA lottery, has roared back to life with his every daredevil drive, killer crossover, and sweet pull-up jumper.
The real Kemba Walker is back.
The only question that is begging for an answer is when will the Knicks consistently return to their winning ways?
“It has been pretty disappointing, especially to our fans,” Walker said of the loss. “These guys have been cheering behind off us, trying to get us going. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been going our way.”
Since Walker’s return, the Knicks have gone 1-2, losing two tightly-fought games that went down the wire.
“We’ll change it. We’ll get there. I don’t think it will happen for too much longer. I definitely think we’re getting better. We’ll change it for those guys,” Walker said.” We’ll start racking up the wins.”
Now that he’s back in control of his destiny, Walker has started to write the next chapter of his New York homecoming story that he hopes will end in a happy ending.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo