Out of necessity, Kemba Walker’s 10-game hiatus came to an end as head coach Tom Thibodeau gave the veteran point guard the nod for the shorthanded Knicks in a 114-107 loss to the Boston Celtics on Saturday.
He took full advantage, pouring in 29 points with six rebounds and three assists in 37 minutes of action in an attempt to make a statement to Thibodeau that he should return to a regular playing status.
“I know I should be playing, so no question. It feels great,” Walker said after his performance. “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.”
Walker was taken completely out of the Knicks’ rotation last month as Thibodeau, who was looking for more size and defense, opted to play Alec Burks amid the 31-year-old’s struggles. In his last five games before his benching, Walker averaged just 8.8 points and 3.2 assists in 21.3 minutes per game.
With a rotation of Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley already coming off the bench, there was no room for Walker.
“It’s a tough decision to make, but you always have to do what you think is best for the team,” Thibodeau said. “I view Kemba as a starter, and so it’d be tough to play three small guards together. I gave it consideration, and I’ve got great respect for who Kemba is as a person and all he’s accomplished in this league. But I have to do what I think is best for the team.”
But after the Knicks were down nine players due to COVID and injuries, Thibodeau had no choice but to call upon Walker on Saturday.
His benching has brought plenty of speculation about his future with the Knicks, including trade talks ahead of the league’s deadline on Feb. 10. But the veteran has portrayed an admirable brand of professionalism throughout the last three weeks in which he has hidden his dissatisfaction.
“I’ve had a great career thus far and a lot of things went my way,” Walker said. “It’s a tough time right now, so it’s really about just showing my character, showing who I really am. I’m so mentally tough, I feel like I’m built for any situation, and I’m going to handle it the best I can.
“Just try to be unbreakable and continue to put my work in and just stay ready for anything that comes my way.”