MILWAUKEE — Kemba Walker was detailing the challenge facing him Friday night against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and particularly Jrue Holiday, perhaps the best defensive point guard in the NBA.
As Walker spoke about the task, RJ Barrett came off the court at the Knicks’ morning shootaround, put his arm around his shoulder and interjected, "He can’t guard Kemba, though."
Walker, not only a veteran with a decade of NBA experience but someone who has battled Holiday since they were in high school, shook his head.
"He’s a great defensive player," Walker said. "I don’t feed into that kind of stuff. But yeah, we all know how great of a defensive player Jrue is. It’ll always be a challenge. Of course, I’m a smaller guy, he’s a lot bigger than me. I’ve just got to find ways. It’s not really about me and him anyway. It’s a team thing."
Everything else Walker spoke about was focused around those final words: "It’s a team thing." He struggled offensively and defensively in Wednesday’s 111-98 loss in Indiana, and it was no coincidence that the Knicks fell behind 11-0, surrendered 36 first-quarter points and never caught up.
Entering Friday’s game, Walker had the worst defensive rating on the team, according to NBA.com. While there was little doubt that the defense would dip in productivity with Walker and Evan Fournier replacing Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock from last season’s team, the offensive production is expected to make up for it until Tom Thibodeau can refine this newly constructed defensive unit.
Walker took some of the responsibility.
"I just think we’ve just got to be better," he said. "That’s really it. Defense is about pride and wanting to do it. I just think we had some nights where it just hasn’t been there, together, haven’t been locked in, haven’t been in our spots. We know what we have to do. We just got to be better, plain and simple.
"I think you have to be ready individually first to get your team going. Like I said, I’ve got to make sure everything’s going. I’ve got to be ready to start the game better. The start of the game is important. The start of the game sets up the rest of our game for our teammates, for guys coming off the bench. Those guys see how we’re playing so they can come in and feed off of our energy. So yeah, a lot goes into it. We’ve just got to be better at that aspect."
"The start of the game’’ didn’t work out too well for the Knicks on Friday night, either, as the Bucks took a 40-19 lead during the first minute of the second quarter. The Knicks did get within 48-43 midway through the quarter, though.
Thibodeau pointed out that the Knicks currently rank No. 5 in the NBA in defensive field-goal percentage. The faster pace this season’s team has played at, along with the increased three-point field goal shooting, has led to more opportunities for the opposition, too.
"That’s the challenge for the starters," Thibodeau said. "You have three new starters. So how quickly can we adapt and get everybody on the same page? Because if one guy is unsure, the whole group is going to look bad. It’s not any one particular guy, it’s the group tied together. And that’s offense and defense.
"So it’s understanding the details of everything. I think we’ll get better and better at it. I’ve talked to the team about — the one thing that we have done well is fifth in defensive field-goal percentage, and we’re in the top five in points in the paint. So we’re giving the appropriate help. Where we have to get better is finishing our defense, the rebounding piece of it and our transition piece of it."