Kemba Walker emphatically answered the question of who would pick up the slack with Derrick Rose out of commission for the Knicks, posting the finest of his three excellent games since rejoining rotation following a nine-game benching.
Now the Knicks just have to figure out how to translate those electrifying performances into wins.
The Bronx native had his hometown crowd loudly chanting his name Thursday while pouring in 36 of his season-high 44 points in the second and third quarters, but Tom Thibodeau was beyond displeased with his team’s defensive effort in a wasteful 124-117 loss to the Wizards at the Garden.
“He played a monster game, but we came out with a loss, so it’s a shame to waste that type of effort with a game like that,” Thibodeau said of Walker. “When you’re shorthanded like we are right now, we can’t afford not to play with great intensity on every possession. So that’s where we are.”
Walker, who had totaled 50 points over his previous two appearances amid the team’s ongoing COVID issues, nailed seven of 14 3-point attempts and 14 of 27 shots overall, including a converted four-point play in the third, with nine rebounds and eight assists over a season-high 43 minutes.
“It felt great. It was a good time. But I really wish we could have won, to be honest,” Walker said. “It’s always tough when you play really well like that and don’t come out on top. But it was definitely a very special night.”
Former Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie netted 21 points and Corey Kispert had 20 for the Wizards (17-15)), who played without All-Star guard Bradley Beal and wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Thibodeau was not pleased that Washington shot 56.0 percent from the floor and 43.2 percent from beyond the arc for the game.
“Yeah, it was very poor,” Thibodeau said of his defense. “We didn’t have control of the ball. We didn’t have stance and vision on the weak side. So it’s gonna be hard to win like that.”
Julius Randle finished with 23 points and nine rebounds and Alec Burks added 20, but inconsistent-as-ever Evan Fournier had another down game with eight points on 2-for-13 shooting. The Knicks (14-18) are slated to face the depleted Hawks in a Christmas matinee, with Trae Young, Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter all in health and safety protocols.
RJ Barrett and Quentin Grimes were cleared Thursday to return from their COVID absences, after Obi Toppin also was allowed to rejoin the team. Only Toppin got into the game (two points in 13 minutes) among that trio, however, with Thibodeau noting beforehand that Barrett “needs more conditioning.”
Immanuel Quickley, Kevin Knox, Miles McBride and newly added Nerlens Noel were still out for COVID reasons for the Knicks, who also announced Wednesday that Rose will miss at least eight weeks after undergoing ankle surgery.
With Barrett not quite ready to return, Thibodeau stuck with the previously benched Walker in the starting lineup for the third straight game.
“It’s all about the work,” Walker said. “I’ve been working continuously to stay on top of my game, and some of it came out tonight.”
Walker netted the Knicks’ final eight points of the first half — and finished with 23 in the second quarter alone, rousing the crowd into lengthy chants of his full name, to keep the Knicks within 64-57 at intermission.
Washington stretched a 90-86 lead through three quarters to eight early in the fourth, before a long-range connection by Fournier drew the Knicks within 109-107 with 2:40 remaining. But Aaron Holiday (16 points) responded immediately from long distance and Kyle Kuzma (18) added two late 3s for a 118-111 game in the closing minute.
“It’s tough. I really wanted to win that game,” Walker said. “We just didn’t get enough stops, man. It was a full-team effort. We could have been a lot better on that [defensive] end, for sure.”