After nine fights with rest, rehab and a flush and repeat cycle of being listed as questionable and then sitting out, Kemba Walker was back and forth in the starting lineup Tuesday night.
While it was a relief for the Knicks to get another player back from the sidelines, it presents them, and especially coach Tom Thibodeau, with a riddle. Thibodeau said earlier this season when he benched Walker in nine games (missing 10 games in total after resting his knee in the game before benching) that he saw Walker as a starter. And thus he never brought him up off the bench.
But when he returned to combat when the Knicks list was decimated by players in the NBA’s health and safety protocols, Walker was back in the starting lineup for six games. In his first game back, he delivered a bet of 29 points, followed it with 21 points and eight rebounds in his next game and then exploded to 44 points against Washington. He then put a triple-double up on Christmas Day. But he disappeared with poor performances in Minnesota and Detroit on back-to-back nights and then tweaked his knee in pregame warmups in Oklahoma City on Dec. 31 and was a late scratch. He had not played since the Dec. 29 match in Detroit.
In his place, Alec Burks took the starting job as point guard. And although his natural position is a wing, the Burks have gained Thibodeau’s confidence with his play at the offensive end and, perhaps more importantly, his size and abilities at the defensive end.
“It’s like, the good thing is, Alec, I also consider him a starter,” Thibodeau said. “I’m considering Derrick [Rose] a starter. So they may not be starters starting the game, but I see them that way. So just get in there. Give us what you have, we need everyone. And it’s the beauty of a guy like Alec that he can start, he can get off the bench. He can play the point, he can play the wing. His versatility is a big plus for our team. “
When the season began with Walker as the starting point guard, it had a history book quality that brought him back to New York, where he was born and raised. The native Bronx starred at Rice High School and showed his potential in Madison Square Garden. And then at the University of Connecticut, he led the Huskies to a Big East title with a magical run through the garden.
At his inaugural press conference, Walker said, “It’s an incredible feeling. It’s a great feeling. Just to grow up here, walk around town and see the faces of the guys on the billboard who played for the Knicks and I’ll be playing in New York. Now I’m going to see myself up there with Evan [Fournier] as I have known for a moment now, man, it’s an incredible feeling. I am greatfull.”
But as the team struggled after a 5-1 start, especially at the defensive end, Thibodeau pulled the trigger on the lineup change, and instead of using Walker from the bench, he buried him at the end of it.
When he returned to action, Walker said of his role: “I just did not play for what, seven, eight, nine games. I do not know. Like I said, I’m a guy on the team, so no matter what I asked for me, I’m never going to quarrel anything.Just give my role.I get what the team needs me to give.Whether it’s me who does not play, to be the first to cheer that I coming off the bench, or I start it, is What is it. ”
But he acknowledged that he did not know what his future in New York would be. And he probably still does not. But for one night he was back, in action and in the starting lineup.