Kemba Walker returned to action and to the starting lineup Tuesday night. But it was the finish, not the start that put the New York product on display and sent the Madison Square Garden crowd into a frenzy.
Trailing by 10 at halftime, the Knicks mounted a second-half comeback. And it was Walker who took over with the sort of performance he’d put on display at the Garden since his high school days, connecting on three three-point field goals with the game in the balance, echoing the "Cardiac Kemba" days of long ago.
But the Timberwolves continued to battle to the final buzzer. And with 29.3 seconds remaining, Karl-Anthony Towns converted a tough layup, drawing a foul and three-point play, giving Minnesota the lead and they hung on for a 112-110 win.
"That’s the type of game that keeps you up at night," Evan Fournier said. "You kind of feel like \[expletive\] in the morning afterward, but that’s the league we’re in."
Julius Randle went to the line with 24.3 seconds left and a chance to tie the game but misfired on the first free throw before making the second to cut the deficit to one. Jaden McDaniels then blocked a Fournier drive and Alec Burks missed a potential winning shot as time expired.
Fournier led the Knicks with 27 points and Walker had 19. Randle had 21 points, nine rebounds and nine assists along with four blocks. RJ Barrett had 17 points, but seven turnovers.
"It’s a hard-fought game," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Didn’t get it done down the stretch."
"I’m definitely a little disappointed that we didn’t win, my first game back in a while," Walker said. "Definitely wanted to win. But we got to keep grinding it out. This league is hard, man, it’s hard to win games in this league, super hard. No matter who you’re playing. We got to be ready from the very beginning. Gotta continue to just get better, we gotta believe in each other, just keep pushing."
Down the stretch, the Knicks went with a small lineup after Mitchell Robinson and Taj Gibson both fouled out. Thibodeau inserted Burks rather than another big man and had Randle, Barrett, Fournier, Walker and Burks as a closing lineup. And Randle wasn’t big enough to stop Towns when it counted, the New Jersey native finishing with 20 points.
The Knicks committed three turnovers in the final two minutes, two by Barrett and one by Fournier. And Walker’s magic ran out as the Knicks didn’t convert a field goal in the final 3:41 following Walker’s three consecutive three-point field goals.
Through the first half, the Knicks were outhustled and outplayed, reminiscent of the lackadaisical performance a day earlier against Charlotte, and when the dust cleared, it seemed like a moral victory for the Knicks that they were down just 10 points. Randle and Barrett combined for more turnovers (seven) than field goals (six) and the Knicks turned the ball over 13 times in the half.
In the second half, the Knicks trotted out the same starting lineup, but it looked like a completely different team. Walker, returning to the starting lineup after nine games on the sideline, got them started with his shooting and his energy. Randle began to plow aggressively through the Minnesota defense. And Fournier, the only Knicks player who seemed ready at the start, caught fire.
When the third quarter was over, the Knicks had piled up 40 points and turned the 10-point deficit into a five-point lead. And like that, the boos that echoed through the Garden early turned into chants of de-fense. But from the final minute of the third quarter through the start of the fourth, the Timberwolves scored 11 straight points to turn a 91-82 deficit into a 93-91 lead.
"Felt great," Fournier said of Walker’s return. "He brings speed. He brings an attitude to our team. And he’s always smiling, he has a great attitude, he has a great spirit. It’s always great to see Kemba. With him on the floor, it adds another weapon. He’s so good off the pick and roll and off the bounce. He shot great tonight."