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Why this homecoming is different for Kemba Walker and the New York Knicks



KEMBA WALKER‘S FIRST basket in a New York Knicks uniform was a simple one.

A couple minutes into New York’s preseason opener at Madison Square Garden against the Indiana Pacers, Walker had the ball at the top of the key. He then executed a give-and-go with Julius Randle, darted around a Taj Gibson screen and casually laid the ball in over the arms of Pacers center Myles Turner.

As Walker ran back on defense, he flashed a quick smile toward the Knicks’ bench. It was the culmination of a moment the Bronx native — and lifelong Knicks fan — had spent so much time dreaming about.

“It’s the most unreal feeling,” Walker, a 31-year-old veteran who was a first-round draft pick in 2011, said during his introductory news conference in August. “Like, I can’t really explain it. I can’t really put it into words how amazing this feeling is being back home.”

Walker’s history as a New York basketball legend — first starring at Rice High School, then going on to author unforgettable moments at Madison Square Garden while playing at the University of Connecticut — is something New Yorkers know all too well.

“It’s meaningful because of the fact he’s from here,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau told ESPN. “Who Kemba is as a person I think is reflective of the city. Basketball is really important to this city and the Knicks are really important, and I think Kemba embodies what that is all about.

“He’s a fierce, fierce competitor, and I think there’s an appreciation here for how hard you play, how smart you play, how willing you are to be a good teammate and that is what Kemba has done throughout his career.”

The Knicks are a franchise that, for practically this entire millennium, has chased one dramatic storyline after another. From Stephon Marbury to Larry Brown to Amar’e Stoudemire to Carmelo Anthony to Phil Jackson, the team that makes its home inside The World’s Most Famous Arena has made splashy moves in hopes of returning to the glory days of the 1990s.

But it’s precisely that history of New York basketball, and Walker’s history with the city, that makes this marriage, at this exact moment, so unique. This isn’t a case in which Walker is being asked to save his childhood team, in the same way some of those past experiences and characters — Anthony and Jackson, in particular — were framed.

Instead, as Walker makes his regular-season debut with the Knicks Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) against the Boston Celtics team that traded him away this summer, Walker is in the rare position of arriving in New York with properly sized expectations.

“My guys, my hometown team, the Knicks, they believed in me,” Walker said. “And I’m here now. Whatever happened in the past is irrelevant at this point.”

The past isn’t exactly irrelevant, of course. The Knicks never would have dreamed that when Walker signed as a max free agent with Boston two years ago that they would sign him for less than $10 million per season a couple of years later.

“He was being judged [in Boston] by being a max player when he isn’t anymore,” said one Eastern Conference scout. “In a vacuum, as a ball player, it wasn’t representative.

“But on the Knicks, he’s a perfect fit.”

TWO YEARS AGO, Walker joined the Celtics to chase the chance to play in front of raucous playoff crowds and make deep runs after spending his first eight seasons in relative obscurity as the face of the Charlotte Hornets.

That was, in part, what left him so dejected last season after being forced to miss the final two games of Boston’s lopsided five-game first-round loss to the Brooklyn Nets because of a knee injury.

“I need time,” Walker said via Zoom after Game 5. “I just need a little bit of time to reflect and just get myself back together.”

Although both Walker and the Celtics stressed the knee issue that had ended his season two games early wasn’t the same one that plagued him throughout his second year in Boston, it didn’t change the fact he was 13-for-41 overall and 3-for-17 from 3-point range before being shut down.

“He couldn’t make a 3, couldn’t finish in the paint and couldn’t guard anyone,” a Western Conference executive said. “The knee just wasn’t in a good enough place.”

Walker’s Celtics career started off well enough in 2019. The team was successful, finishing No. 3 in the East in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, during which Walker was named an All-Star starter. And he was dominant at times in the NBA’s Orlando bubble, tearing apart the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, then forcing Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse to employ a box-and-one in the second round as Boston reached the Eastern Conference finals.

“Yeah, it was tough,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, who was Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator for that series, told ESPN. “Obviously losing Ben Simmons in that series, we didn’t have somebody for Jayson [Tatum], but it was just also one less defender for Kemba, so he really got loose in that series.”

Hanging over all of it, though, were ongoing issues with Walker’s balky left knee. He missed time before the pandemic paused the 2019-20 season and embarked on a ramp-up program into the bubble. Walker then was put on a 12-week strengthening program after Boston’s loss in those East finals — one the Celtics expected would help him begin last season on schedule.

Walker, though, didn’t make his debut until Jan. 17.

And while Walker’s regular-season performance in 2021 — 19.3 points per game and 4.9 assists per game, along with 42% shooting overall and 36% from 3-point range in 31.1 minutes a night — was in line with his production from his first season in Boston (20.4 points, 4.8 assists, 42.5% shooting overall and 38.1% from 3-point range in 31.8 minutes), it didn’t have the same impact.

“​​I almost feel like this guy gave up his body in Charlotte,” said another Eastern Conference scout. “He had to do everything in Charlotte. And I just feel like he was broken down by the time he got to Boston.”

Beyond that, Walker’s elite skills became redundant on a Celtics team whose offense evolved to run through its young stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. While Walker, long seen as one of the league’s best locker room presences, was always supportive of his teammates, it was an adjustment to go from being a guy who had the entire system built around him in Charlotte to, last season, becoming the third option in Boston.

“Those other two guys had the ball a lot, and can he function as well if he’s not ‘the’ guy?” asked an Eastern Conference executive. “Throughout his career he’s always been the best player on his team. … And he’s had the ball in his hands a lot, so there’s an adjustment to that and you have to be a real catch-and-shoot player if you’re playing off Jaylen and Jayson …

“I don’t think he adjusted to it. And then defensively, his size and inability to keep people in front is a challenge to deal with when people take time to attack you in the playoffs.”

Brad Stevens, in his first move as Boston’s president of basketball operations this summer, traded Walker and a first-round draft pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Al Horford. It saved Boston at least $20 million and helped the Celtics reshape themselves into a bigger and more defensive-oriented roster.

Walker, meanwhile, had gone from being a max free agent replacing Kyrie Irving to getting jettisoned as a salary dump to a team that wasn’t trying to win. At that point, his NBA future couldn’t have been murkier.

AS THIBODEAU DISSECTED tape of what prevented his team from advancing past the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, it was clear what the Knicks needed: more players capable of putting pressure on the defense, rather than having to put everything on the broad shoulders of Randle.

“That was the biggest thing — just being able to make plays off the dribble,” Thibodeau said.

Incumbent starter Elfrid Payton was a non-factor offensively, and while longtime Thibodeau-favorite Derrick Rose was excellent for the Knicks all season after being acquired from the Detroit Pistons, he simply wore out as that Hawks series went on.

So when Walker was bought out by the Oklahoma City Thunder in early August, it was obvious how his long-standing ability to create shots off the dribble — including pull-up 3-pointers — would be a boon to the Knicks.

“It’s tough when you’re in a drop and you’ve got a guy like Kemba, a guy like Dame [Lillard], who really loves that [3-pointer over a screen],” Celtics guard Josh Richardson, who has faced Walker multiple times in the playoffs, told ESPN.

“It’s almost like warm-up shots sometimes.”

And, by the time Walker cleared waivers a couple of days later, the deal was done.

Rather than playing for a team with two elite young wing players who need the ball in their hands, Walker is joining a Knicks team that was humbled in its own first-round exit. But while Boston was overwhelmed by Brooklyn’s massive talent advantage, the Knicks didn’t have the ability to consistently score against the Hawks.

“The difference in New York is he’s the second-best player,” said the East executive. “He’ll have the ball in his hands. Boston tried to fit a square peg in a round hole. They tried to make him fit with them, whereas New York knows who he is and they are more likely to play to his strengths, running high pick-and-rolls for him a lot.”

And while Thibodeau is known for his defensive prowess, he has also had a long history of creating effective offenses with small point guards, including players such as D.J. Augustin and Nate Robinson.

“He’s always been a really good pick-and-roll player,” Thibodeau said. “The shooting [improvements Walker has made] have added a lot.

“You combine that with the ability to go off the dribble … when you look at the good teams in our league, they have multiple guys who can make plays off the dribble.”

Between Walker and fellow former Celtic Evan Fournier — along with Randle, RJ Barrett, Alec Burks, Immanuel Quickley and Rose — the Knicks are hoping they have the perimeter firepower to better withstand postseason defenses.

“Thibs does a really good job of providing a lot of freedom for them to get their own,” said another East executive. “I think, if [Walker is] right physically, he should be a really good fit.”

Walker will have plenty of questions to answer as the season gets underway, with health being the biggest one. While his numbers didn’t look great in three preseason games — 39% from the floor and 29% from 3-point range — Thibodeau said there have been no health issues. His defensive fit will be a question mark, too.

The difference between Walker in Boston and Walker in New York, however, is the expectations he has to reach. Boston has made it to the playoffs for seven straight seasons, and made the Eastern Conference finals in three of the past five years. New York, meanwhile, has made the playoffs five times in the past 20 years with one series win.

And it’s one thing to be dealing with nagging knee issues if you’re on a max deal. It’s quite another if you’re the sixth-highest paid player on the team.

“He’s obviously small defensively, and that’s a challenge,” said the West executive, “but I think he’s going to be a fine, capable, starting point guard for the Knicks.”

Even if that’s all Walker accomplishes, he’ll have the chance to do something rare: write a storybook ending to a New York basketball tale.

“I think it is,” Walker said, when asked if it was the right time for him to come home. “Perfect timing. [I’m] really motivated. Super excited that these guys have belief in me.

“I just need somebody to believe in me.”

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Dallas Mavericks get Kristaps Porzingis, coach Jason Kidd back from health and safety protocols



DALLAS — Mavericks power forward/center Kristaps Porzingis has cleared the NBA’s health and safety protocols after missing the past seven games and is expected to play in Saturday night’s home game against the Orlando Magic.

Mavericks coach Jason Kidd also cleared the protocols.

Dallas won six of the seven games missed by Porzingis, who is averaging 20.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. The Mavs went 3-1 during Kidd’s absence, when defensive coordinator Sean Sweeney served as the acting head coach.

A source said Porzingis felt well in recent days and had been able to do individual workouts.

Porzingis’ clearance makes center Marquese Chriss ineligible to play for the Mavericks while he remains on a 10-day hardship deal that expires Thursday.

Sources said the Mavericks are considering their options to sign Chriss for the remainder of the season, which would require a move to create an open roster spot.

Chriss has played in 12 games over three 10-day deals with the Mavericks, averaging 6.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 11.8 minutes per game while shooting 63% from the floor.

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Chicago Bulls star guard Zach LaVine to have MRI on injured left knee



CHICAGO — Bulls guard Zach LaVine exited Friday’s 138-96 loss to the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter with a left knee injury and did not return.

LaVine did not travel with the team to Boston for its matchup against the Celtics on Saturday night, and instead will remain in Chicago to receive an MRI. There’s initial confidence that he hasn’t suffered a serious injury, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

LaVine appeared to begin laboring after grabbing an offensive rebound with just under nine minutes remaining in the first quarter. On the next play, he took an intentional foul on Warriors guard Stephen Curry before taking himself out of the game.

He immediately walked toward the Bulls’ locker room with a team trainer, but LaVine was able to move under his own power.

“The MRI will tell a lot more once he gets that done,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “I don’t want to sit here and speculate … he kind of came down a little funny, and he’s got some discomfort there right now and they want to take a look. He didn’t feel like he could return.”

Chicago has had its depth tested recently without guard Alex Caruso (health and safety), Derrick Jones Jr. (knee), Javonte Green (groin) and Tyler Cook (ankle).

LaVine is averaging 25.6 points on 49% shooting (41% from 3), 4.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 37 games for the Bulls this season.

The Warriors took over following LaVine’s injury, closing the first half on a 64-37 run. The Bulls lost by 42 points on Friday after losing by 26 points to the Nets on Wednesday. It’s the first time a conference leader has lost consecutive games by an average of 30 points since the NBA went to two conferences in 1970, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

“These two games should be all the motivation that we need to step up, play hard, play for one another,” Bulls star DeMar DeRozan said. “It’s just another challenge that we got to face. We can’t complain about it. Can’t whine about it. Can’t look for no extra help. It’s on us.”

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Joel Embiid – ‘No urgency to change anything’ on surging Philadelphia 76ers



PHILADELPHIA — After beating the Boston Celtics to win for the ninth time in 11 games Friday night, 76ers superstar Joel Embiid said “there’s really no urgency to change anything” with his team with just under four weeks to go until the NBA’s trade deadline.

“I feel great, man,” Embiid said, after finishing with 25 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists in Philadelphia’s comfortable 111-99 victory over its old rivals here at Wells Fargo Center.

“When I look at where we are when we got most of the team in the lineup, especially me in the lineup, then we are 21 and 9. That’s not bad. That’s up there with the best records in the NBA. So, all that tells me is that we just got to stay healthy, keep doing what we’ve been doing.

“I feel pretty good, and I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet. We still got a long way to go. We’re missing guys here and there that could really help us. There’s really no urgency to change anything. I think we got everything we need. We’re gonna keep on going and I’m happy.”

The 76ers have played this entire season with All-Star guard Ben Simmons sitting out, as his ongoing trade demand goes unfulfilled. Still, when Embiid has been on the court, Philadelphia has won 70% of its games and has outscored its opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions.

The possibility of a Simmons trade — and what it could get Philadelphia in return — has loomed over the 76ers all season, however, ever since Simmons refused to report to the start of training camp in September.

But Embiid said he believes the Sixers are good enough to win with the players they have available to them right now — though he admitted that it would require the 76ers to play near-perfect basketball.

“I think so,” he said. “I think we all gotta, we all gotta be our best. And when we are at our best, I think we can beat anybody. We’ve seen it a couple of times this year. So, I just think we need to, I need to keep doing what I’ve been doing and then obviously we need consistency from everybody, not just Tobias [Harris] or Tyrese [Maxey] or Seth [Curry] or Danny [Green], guys coming off the bench, getting Shake [Milton] back [healthy].

“We need consistency, and everybody coming in every single night with the goal of just doing their job and chipping in offensively and defensively and just playing together and we’ll be fine.”

Philadelphia (24-17) was more than fine against Boston (21-22) Friday night, jumping on the Celtics with a 28-2 run in the first quarter and never looking back.

For Boston, it was a quick fall back to earth after some brief sparks of life during a season-long three-game winning streak. But with Marcus Smart out due to the health and safety protocols, the Celtics got nothing from his replacement, Dennis Schroder, who missed all six shots he took in 25 minutes and was called for a flagrant foul 1 for pushing 76ers forward Matisse Thybulle in the back on a dunk attempt.

Thybulle landed very hard on his back, and while he initially stayed in the game, he later left with right shoulder soreness. Before exiting, he had five steals and two blocks for a 76ers team that created 20 turnovers and scored 31 points off them.

“This was a tough night,” said Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, who finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists but had as many made field goals (7-for-17) as turnovers (7). “I don’t think we had any nights like this where … obviously, we’ve had some nights when we’ve started slow, but most of the time, we give ourselves a chance.

“For whatever reason, it was one of those nights where we just started slow and never [recovered].”

For Philadelphia, it was an emphatic bounce-back performance from Wednesday’s loss here to the Charlotte Hornets, a defeat that snapped the 76ers’ seven-game winning streak. Embiid said that Charlotte’s ball movement gave the Sixers a lot of trouble, whereas Boston’s more isolation-heavy offense was easier to guard.

“If you compare, you know, tonight from the other night, it’s kind of easier to guard,” Embiid said. “Charlotte, they move the ball extremely well. They have shooters all over the place, and they made a bunch of jump shots. Obviously, Boston is more of an iso-heavy team. So it kind of becomes easier to kind of load up and try to stop them.”

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