All eyes will be on Kemba Walker on Wednesday night as he makes his official New York Knicks debut against his old team Boston Celtics at 7:30 pm.
An expected raucous, sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd will be on hand to witness the opening of one of the most anticipated seasons in Knicks history coming off a playoff run.
Walker has a chip on his shoulder after the Celtics dealt him to the Oklahoma City Thunder with a future pick in the offseason before finding his way to New York via a contract buyout.
“Does it matter [that I’ll be facing the Celtics in my Knicks debut]? Of course. It’s my old team,” Walker said after Tuesday’s practice. “But I don’t go into any game thinking I want to lose. So, I definitely want to win. Does it make it that much better than it’s my old team? Yeah, no question.”
Walker, alongside another former Celtic Evan Fournier, will add another layer to the Knicks offense, which heavily relied on Julius Randle’s shot creation and playmaking in the past.
While Walker (39.3 FG%, 29.4 3P%) and Fournier (38.5% FG, 30 3P%) groped for form as they tried to fit in, the Knicks’ new-look offense looked good in the preseason. In their undefeated preseason run heading into Wednesday’s home opener, the Knicks landed second in offensive rating (113.4) buoyed by their spiked three-point shot volume.
Derrick Rose harped that they are targeting to jump from 30 per game (27th in the league last season) to 37-40 attempts. They were above their target with 41 attempts, sixth in the league during the preseason, and hit 38.4 percent of them, which landed in the top three.
New Celtics coach Ime Udoka has taken notice of the Knicks’ new-look offense. Walker’s mastery of the pick and roll and Fournier’s off-the-bounce game have made the Knicks more unpredictable on offense despite the newcomers’ shooting struggles.
“We’re really recognizing that in the preseason, they’re playing with tremendous pace,” Udoka said after Monday’s practice. “I think that’s a league-wide thing but the Knicks are really good up and down pushing with their guards, hunting threes in transition, playing fast, and looking to shoot the three a lot.”
The Knicks, who played with the slowest pace (96.32) last season, played faster in the preseason (102.50).
Whereas the Knicks have been picking up their new-look offense a lot quicker based on their 4-0 preseason result, the Celtics are adjusting to Udoka’s coaching a little bit slower as they went 2-2 in the preseason, splitting their games against Orlando, picking up a close win against Toronto and losing in double-digits to Miami.
Udoka, who previously worked for the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers, and Brooklyn Nets as defensive coordinator, is switching up everything on defense. He wants the Celtics to prevent dribble penetration and minimize help defense by keeping the ball in front of the defense. It’s a significant change from Brad Steven’s drop coverage, where the defensive bigs were responsible for containing dribble penetration off screens while teammates recover their defensive position.
The Celtics’ switching defense will be a good test to the Knicks’ new-look offense, which now enjoys multiple shot creators off the dribble with the addition of Walker and Fournier to ease the burden on Randle.
On defense, the Knicks will focus on slowing down the Celtics’ two rising stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Tatum is back at health after a bout with COVID-19 last season. Brown will be playing his first game back from health and safety protocols after experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms.
RJ Barrett, who is embracing the role of the Knicks’ designated wing stopper, will have his hands full against Tatum. But Thibodeau, a defensive genius, will not put the defensive pressure squarely on Barrett’s broad shoulders. His defense relies on the Knicks playing like a string.
“Defensively, they are who they are and they’re gonna play extremely aggressive and hard and deny elbow catches and be physical,” Udoka said. “So, that doesn’t change regardless of who their roster is but offensively, I noticed some different things like they’re playing with a faster pace and shooting more threes. And so we prepare for that.”
With Al Horford still out due to COVID-19, Thibodeau might give his small-ball lineup another run in select minutes to give the returning Mitchell Robinson some breather. The Randle-Obi Toppin frontcourt was a plus-14 against the Wizards that sparked their comeback. But there’s still the ever-reliable Taj Gibson who will likely be matched up against former Knick Enes Kanter in the second unit.
The Knicks bench, led by Derrick Rose, will be Thibodeau’s trump card in this match.
But when push comes to shove, a Cardiac Kemba moment in the Garden could be in the offing.
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