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Knicks don't need Kemba to be hero, just a help

Knicks' Kemba Walker (8) celebrates with RJ Barrett

Knicks' Kemba Walker (8) celebrates with RJ Barrett (9) after making a three point basket during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in New York. Credit: AP/Frank Franklin II

Forget about a Bronx cheer. On Wednesday night, Kemba Walker unveiled a Bronx salute.

In case anyone forgot that Walker is a New Yorker, he provided a reminder. As he was introduced for his first game as a Knick, Walker formed an "X'' with his arms over his head to honor the borough where he grew up. And, as expected, the crowd went wild.

That, unfortunately, was the highlight of Walker’s homecoming.

Stat-wise, the Knicks' 138-134 double-overtime win over the Boston Celtics in their season opener was a pretty rough one for Walker.

The Knicks' starting point guard finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, four turnovers and three assists. Most painfully, he turned the ball over on two consecutive possessions in the final seconds of regulation and was replaced by Derrick Rose for the final overtime.

When the Celtics got the ball upcourt quickly against a scattered Knicks defense in the final seconds of regulation, Walker also seemed confused defensively as Marcus Smart hit the tying three-pointer from the right wing at the buzzer.

"I was a little disappointed towards the end of the game. A lot of mistakes on my behalf," Walker said. "My teammates saved me. They came through and we stuck together."

Instead of Walker, it was Evan Fournier, the Knicks' other new offseason addition, who came up big. Fournier finished with 32 points and was 6-for-13 from three-point range, including four three-pointers in the two overtime periods.

"I think the more Kemba plays with that group, the more he’s going to get into rhythm," coach Tom Thibodeau said of the starters. "Kemba and Evan are terrific players and we are excited about the possibilities."

It was a weird game, but one that does promise some offensive excitement for the rest of the season. The Knicks had six players in double figures, led by Julius Randle's 35 points. They also hit 17 of their 45 three-pointers.

The last time there was this much buzz at the start of a Knicks season, Carmelo Anthony was a Knick at the peak of his career and New York legend Kemba Walker had just finished his rookie season on a horrible team in Charlotte.

In the intervening nine seasons since the Knicks started that 2012-13 campaign, they have had six coaching changes, four management shake-ups, just two trips to the playoffs and countless numbers of upset fans.

And Walker? After establishing himself as one of the top point guards in the league and appearing in four straight All-Star Games, Walker, 31, finds himself needing to prove that he is not on a major decline. Injuries, including an arthritic knee, caused him to miss 29 games last season with the Celtics, including two in the playoffs.

This is to say that Walker and the Knicks need each other, and the timing couldn’t be better for him to join this particular Knicks team.

Unlike Phil Jackson or Anthony or Stephon Marbury, Walker isn’t back home to save the Knicks. He doesn't need to be a hero; he just needs to make them a little better.

"Kemba, he’s terrific. He’s like a breath of fresh air," coach Tom Thibodeau said in his pregame news conference Wednesday. "Every day we see him, he is upbeat, positive, he gives you everything he has. He’s been through a lot. You know, I think he understands what he has to do."

What Walker has to do is stay healthy enough to play a good chunk of the season. His years as an All-Star point guard may be over, but he is a huge upgrade from Elfrid Peyton, last season's starter, who was so ineffective that he basically was benched during the Knicks' first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks.

The Knicks' biggest problem against the Hawks was an inability to score consistently. Atlanta rattled Randle by double- and triple-teaming him, and no one else was able to step up and produce or facilitate.

Point guard clearly was the Knicks' biggest need heading into free agency, which is why it was so disconcerting for Knicks fans to hear that Chris Paul and Mike Conley were re-signing with their teams and Kyle Lowry was headed to South Beach.

It looked as if the Knicks again were going to be playing point guard by committee with the 33-year-old Rose, who was their best player in the Atlanta series, being forced to push his body past a point anyone considered sustainable.

And then boom, Brad Stephens — in one of his first moves as the Celtics' general manager — decided to trade Walker to Oklahoma City in a salary dump. Then double boom, news broke that Walker was planning to sign with the Knicks after the Thunder bought out his contract.

Walker’s history as a New York basketball legend is known by Knicks fans. He first starred at Rice High School and then produced some unforgettable moments at Madison Square Garden en route to leading UConn to a national championship in 2011.

Walker has said that earlier in his career, he wouldn’t have been ready to play for the team he grew up rooting for. In fact, his decision to come to the Knicks wasn’t so much about returning home as it was finding one.

Walker never quite fit in with the Celtics, who were committed to running their offense through their young stars, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. He went from being a star in Charlotte to being the third guy in Boston. He still managed to produce on offense last year — averaging 19.3 points and 4.9 assists per game — but he wasn’t having the same impact.

"At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel wanted," Walker said after practice on Tuesday when asked about coming to the Knicks. "I think that was the biggest factor. They wanted me to be here."

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