When fans got sentimental about Kemba Walker’s return to New York last offseason, what they had in mind were games like Thursday night’s.

Walker’s return to his hometown has been anything but a fairy tale up to this point. After the Knicks got off to a slow start to the season, head coach Tom Thibodeau announced that he was pulling Walker out of the rotation to try to improve on New York’s poor efforts on the defensive end.

That move took place a month ago, on November 27, but due to the long list of Knicks players entering NBA health and safety protocols and an injury to Derrick Rose, Thibodeau had no choice but to return. Walker to his place in the NBA. initial alignment.

And so far, he has made a pretty strong case to remain a starter even after players leave the COVID-19 roster.

NBA League Pass: Sign up to unlock games outside the live market (7-day free trial)

In his first game in the rotation, Walker had 29 points against his former team, the Celtics, albeit in a loss. The next game, Walker went for 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists, playing a key role in New York’s win over the Pistons.

Thursday night against the Wizards, Walker had not only his best performance of the season, but also his best performance in years, going for 44 points to try and lead the Knicks to victory.

His outburst ended up being a losing effort, but it was the most points Walker had scored in a game since 2019. He fired an efficient 14 of 27 from the field and lit it from beyond the arc, going 7 of -14 from the 3 point range. Walker wasn’t just scoring either. He nearly dropped a triple-double, adding nine rebounds and eight assists to his totals.

Will performances like this be strong enough for Thibodeau to consider keeping Walker in the lineup? You may not have a choice.

With Immanuel Quickley, Nerlens Noel, Kevin Knox II and Miles McBride all on COVID-19 protocols and Rose out for a minimum of two months after receiving surgery on his right ankle, the Knicks have weakened at the position of guard.

And even if that weren’t the case, the result of taking Walker out of the lineup didn’t change much for the Knicks.

Before banking Kemba 10-9 107.9 108.5 -0.6
While Kemba was on the bench 3-7 109.6 115.9 -6.3
Since Kemba’s return to the lineup 1-2 112.7 113.1 -0.4

As you can see, the Knicks were at their worst without Kemba playing. His defensive rating was his highest all season, and while his offensive rating increased the slightest, he has improved even more since his return to the lineup.

This New York team can absolutely use a shot maker of Walker’s caliber, and we saw that when he gave the Knicks a chance to win that game at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. Without Walker, that could easily have been a nasty loss at home in the face of a big showdown on Christmas Day in Mecca.

The Garden was great for the Bronx native, the team rallied around their energetic veteran and while it wasn’t the result they were looking for, it was clear that they are better off with Walker in the lineup.

He’ll have another chance to prove that on the biggest regular-season stage the NBA has to offer when the Knicks host the Hawks at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day.