BOSTON — Finally given the chance to escape the bench, Kemba Walker found himself in the starting lineup Saturday night. He performed as well as the Knicks could have hoped for, scoring 29 points in a 114-107 loss to the Celtics.
Walker also found his form after the game. Sitting down for only his second interview since he last played in a game on Nov. 26, he expressed some of his frustrations. And he wondered, just as most have, what is next for him.
He got his chance to play because the Knicks had reached peak desperation — six players (including three guards) lost to the NBA’s health and safety protocols and guard Derrick Rose sidelined with a sore right ankle. The team even brought in G League guard Tyler Hall on a 10-day contract on a hardship exception.
So Walker started, played 37 minutes and did all he could to help the Knicks before they fell for the eighth time in their last 10 games to drop to 13-17.
Asked if he was surprised to see what Walker did after the long absence, coach Tom Thibodeau said, "That’s what he’s supposed to do. He’s a pro, great character, played well."
Will Walker play again when the Knicks begin to get others back?
"We’ll see," Thibodeau said. "We have to look at everything in totality."
That totality had left Walker with zero playing time in the previous 10 games. Thibodeau told the media that he considers Walker a starter, and he wasn’t starting anymore, so he wasn’t playing at all.
"I hate it," Walker said. "I want to play. It is what it is. Guys went down. I got to fill in, do what I can until they get back. I know I should be playing, so no question, it feels great. But whatever situation I’m in, I’m going to stay locked in, stay prepared. Whatever the team needs from me, I’ll be there for them."
"That’s extremely tough what he did," said Evan Fournier, who scored 32 points Saturday night. "You probably don’t realize how much of an impact that has on you to not play a minute for so long and to be able to come out here with rhythm, with confidence. It shows who Kemba is. We all know his resume. I was very happy to see him smiling again."
It was just four months ago that Walker excitedly spoke at a news conference on the Madison Square Garden floor about returning to his roots, with the Bronx native recalling his high school and college days playing at the Garden. Now, when asked if he still wants to stay in New York, he hinted that playing trumps a return home.
"I want to play," he said. "I don’t know. So it is what it is. I don’t know what the future holds, you know. I do feel like I have a lot to give still. I don’t know. That’s up to these guys, you know."
Even with the Knicks' decision to sit him, he has provided some offense this season, converting 41.7% of his shots from beyond the arc and averaging 12.6 points per game. As of Dec. 15, players such as Walker who signed in the offseason can be traded. It would seem that in putting him out of action, the Knicks will look to move on from what is a reasonable contract, particularly right now, with teams needing to fill holes because of injuries and illness.
"I have no idea, brother man," Walker said. "That’s not a question for me. Like I said, I just have to continue to stay ready. I have no idea what the future holds. That’s not really a question for me."