“Kem-ba, Walk-er,” they chanted.
“Kem-ba, Walk-er,” the sold-out Garden crowd roared.
“Kem-ba, Walk-er” echoed throughout the building as everyone stood up out of their seats.
The 31-year-old Bronx native, serenaded with a standing ovation after completing a triple-double, couldn’t hide that trademark smile of his.
This was one Christmas he won’t forget.
Walker, the offseason acquisition who was benched after a shaky start and regained his spot a week ago only after a COVID-19 outbreak, led the Knicks to a commanding 101-87 victory over the Hawks, becoming the franchise’s first player — and seventh in NBA history — to record a triple-double on Christmas Day.
“Those are moments you dream about,” Walker said. “It was special just to be home with that New York on my chest. Being a New York City kid, born and raised, it felt amazing.”
He added: “Definitely a very special Christmas.”
With one of their better all-around performances of the season, the Knicks won for the second time in three games before embarking on a four-game road trip that starts Tuesday against the Timberwolves. They took advantage of the Hawks’ many absences due to the virus, in particular star point guard Trae Young, who tormented the Knicks and their fans in the playoffs a year ago.
This time, the Knicks (15-18) had the best point guard on the floor. Walker, two days removed from his 44-point outburst in a loss to the Wizards, played the role of orchestrator perfectly. He created opportunities for his teammates and extended possessions with hustle plays. He was aggressive, but didn’t force shots, and along with Julius Randle, keyed a furious start that saw the Knicks lead 19-3 just 4:12 after the opening tip.
“There were a number of really good plays that got people great shots,” coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Thibodeau, Randle and Walker all agreed that the veteran point guard has been a different player since his return to the lineup last Dec. 18 against the Celtics. He’s deferring less and attacking more. In four games, Walker is averaging 26.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 7.0 assists and just one turnover, and the Knicks have two wins and two narrow defeats. Walker is now over the benching, he said, and focused on sustaining his improved play.
“I think it was a blessing in disguise, to be honest,” Walker said. “It’s like it happened for a reason, man.
“I have a tendency of not wanting to step on toes, and that’s what I did early on. I wasn’t being as aggressive I think as I could’ve been. Being out, seeing how the game was flowing and going, put me in a different mindset.”
There was so much to like from this effort, even if it was against an undermanned opponent. From Walker (10 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds, plus-19 rating) adeptly running the team to the strong bench performances from young reserves Obi Toppin and Quentin Grimes, to Randle’s dominant double-double of 25 points and 12 rebounds, the Knicks produced the kind of lopsided victory that has been few and far between this year. They made 20 3-pointers and held the Hawks to 37.9 percent shooting from the field. Toppin put an exclamation point on the joyous afternoon, throwing down a between-the-legs dunk in transition.
Walker jump-started a 16-4 run that gave the Knicks an 18-point lead late in the third quarter. His two free throws ended a 3:50 scoring drought and he set up consecutive 3-pointers from Randle. Grimes added two more 3s as the Knicks began to run away from the Hawks.
The lead ballooned to 21 early in the fourth quarter, and the only question left was whether Walker could complete his triple-double. Everyone kept telling him he needed one more rebound. The Knicks were actively trying to help him get his 10th board, and with 6:25 left, he got it.
“[After] my ninth one, that ball was not trying to find me,” he said. “But I did what I could, and I was able to get it.”
When Walker came out, the thunderous chants started again: “Kem-ba, Walk-er, Kem-ba, Walk-er, Kem-ba, Walk-er.”
Even he had to shake his head at how much his season has changed in the last week.
“This is not how I pictured it,” Walker said. “I ain’t complaining, neither.”