Tom Thibodeau went through his pregame ritual of running down the injury report for Wednesday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks and he happily cleared the question marks around Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson, announcing that they would be available to play.
But once again, he had to declare Kemba Walker out of action, accompanied by the usual addendum that he is close to returning and day to day. But the reality was that with the Knicks desperately in need of his services he was out of action for a seventh straight game.
With Julius Randle struggling through a strange stretch in which he has warred with the fans and disturbingly scored just two points Monday - the lowest output of his Knicks tenure — the Knicks could use his leadership, his playmaking and even his smile. But with Derrick Rose still rehabilitating from ankle surgery and Walker out, Randle is left without a true point guard to help him.
The Knicks were playing the 42nd game of the season Wednesday, passing the midpoint of the season, and Walker has played in just 24 games, missing 18. Last year, even as he was restricted from playing back-to-back games by the Celtics, he played in 42 games, sitting out 30 all season, a figure he is already approaching with 40 games left on the schedule.
"He’s close," Thibodeau said. "We’ll see where it is tomorrow. He’s not quite there.
"I think the soreness is pretty good. It’s just ramping everything up again. He’ll know - he’s doing more and more, so we’ll see how it goes tomorrow when we get him in and get some work in, see how it responds. It’s really how it responds the next day after he loads it up."
The Knicks have been vague as to what exactly the problem is, calling it a sore left knee. He sat out 10 straight games early this season — the first a rest day on the back end of back-to-back games and then nine games relegated to the bench by Thibodeau, who decided that the starting lineup wasn’t working with him and he wasn’t a bench player.
When he returned to the lineup in an act of desperation with COVID and injuries leaving the Knicks in need of a point guard, he played 37 minutes and scored 29 points in Boston. He followed that with 40 minutes and 21 points, then 43 minutes and 44 points against Washington and a 33-minute triple-double in Minnesota. But the next night in Detroit on a back end of a back-to-back set he played just 20 minutes.
The next game, in Oklahoma City on December 31, the Knicks said that he tweaked his knee in pregame warmups and would not be available. And since then it has been a series of announcements that he’s close, but he remains the one player other than Rose who has not returned to action.
This likely will change how the Knicks use him. After not playing back-to-backs in Boston last year, Walker began the year saying that he would not have that plan in place this time, instead of measuring it by feel. Now, the Knicks might have to throw up a caution flag.
"We’ll see, the same thing, whatever he can handle when he comes back," Thibodeau said. "(The recommendation of the medical staff) is your first order of business. You always see what they recommend and you’re going to follow their guidelines. We wanted to make sure it completely calmed down and load him up again. When he’s ready to go he’s ready to go.
"I think (the medical staff) will approach it the same way. They’ll talk to him and see where he is. If he can go he’ll go. If he can’t go, if it’s smarter to give him that game off, give him that game off. Right now we’ve got guys back so we’ve got good depth. The player always has say in it. The medical people have say in it. They’ll talk to Kemba, see where he is, they’ll talk to the doctors and they’ll put a plan together."