CHARLOTTE. N.C. For all that has been made about Kemba Walker coming home to New York, where he was born and raised, on the courts and playgrounds of the city, when he arrived at the Spectrum Center he seemed really at home.
He walked around the edge of the court before the game, signing autographs, posing for pictures and exchanging hugs with longtime staff. And then he took the floor and scored 17 points in the first quarter, helping the Knicks build a 16-point lead.
But the fast start by Walker and horrific shooting by Charlotte could not combine to put the Hornets away and by the third quarter they’d come all the way back to take the lead as the Knicks were hit by the same struggles that have plagued them of late, this time a 104-96 loss.
It was just two days ago that the Knicks had ridden their bench to the final buzzer, benching the listless starting unit and a massive comeback fell short in the end as the second unit ran out of gas.
So this time, when the Knicks reserves had to bail out the starters again, coach Tom Thibodeau opted to insert the starters back into the game. Walker came first and then Julius Randle and RJ Barrett followed. But a miserable ending to the game, missing all but one of their last eight shots and being outscored 13-3, had them searching for answers once again.
"It’s going to take energy," Walker said. "It’s going to take pride, it’s going to take five guys to do it. It’s going to take us five, we’ve got to figure it out.
"We just have to or else," he said, pausing for a moment and laughing before adding, "Won’t be good for us. Won’t be good for us. So it needs to get better. It just needs to get better."
Defensive failures, open shots, lazy turnovers piled up and the early heroics were long forgotten when Walker tried to inbound the ball under the Knicks basket with just over a minute remaining and LaMelo Ball stole it, went the length of the floor for a layup and all that was left was for the clock to run out.
Although Walker finished with a season-high 26 points, the Knicks had too many dead spots once again as Randle struggled through a 4-for-15 shooting night and Barrett was 1-for-9 with just two points. But more than the shooting it was the missed assignments and miscues that had Thibodeau talking to himself.
"They started the game well, built a big lead," he said. "In this league, you gotta play for 48 minutes. That team is capable of scoring a lot of points. Nobody is safe. So play with the right intensity. The second half, we didn't play well, so we gotta fix that. The bench came in and played well. We need everyone to play well. It's a team, so you need your starters to play well; you need your bench to play well. You need them to play well together."
The Hornets began the game shooting 1-for-12 from beyond the arc, seeming to resolve one of the issues that has hurt the Knicks. But it wouldn’t last. The Knicks still held a 55-46 lead at halftime, but almost as soon as they emerged from the locker room the problems started. Walker threw up an airball from three and on the other end Terry Rozier buried a three 1:40 into the quarter and the score was tied at 56. The Hornets embarked on a 22-5 run to start the period in just 4 minutes, and 42 seconds.
"We weren’t getting stops," Walker said. "They started making shots and they started getting the momentum and it started going down from there. The bench came in and brought us right back, gave us a chance. But we fell short.
"I wish I could tell you [why]. That’s been our problem this season – our starts, especially in the third, haven’t been great for us. We have to find a way. We have to find a way to be better."