Kemba Walker still not ready to return to Knicks’ lineup

During the last Garden holiday matinee, Kemba Walker became a triple-double Christmas Day hero. 

On MLK Day, Walker was a spectator donning a bright-orange sweatshirt — his arthritic left knee appearing as solid as slush. 

His mysterious absence continued Monday when Walker sat out his ninth straight game. 

Tom Thibodeau has touted how close Walker has been for a week, but the Knicks coach said it is the veteran’s call and The Bronx product hasn’t given the green light. 

According to Thibodeau, the delay, too, is because the Knicks want Walker strong enough to not have to take games off after he returns. But is that really possible? 

The Knicks will play Minnesota on Tuesday in the second leg of a back-to-back, but Thibodeau didn’t sound confident Walker would make his big return. 

Kemba Walker walks off the court in street clothes after the Knicks’ loss to Hornets.
Getty Images

It seems unlikely the Knicks would use Walker in both legs of a back-to-back the rest of the season. 

“The big thing is, regarding Kemba, I want him to feel as good as possible,’’’ Thibodeau said after the Knicks’ three-game winning streak was snapped in a 97-87 loss to Charlotte on Monday. “A player like him, in the situation he’s in, I want him to completely trust his body. When he’s ready, he’s ready. He’ll let us know. He’s pretty close. He’s loading up pretty good. When he’s there, we’ll know. He’ll know. That’s the most important thing. A pro athlete has to trust his body.’’ 

Walker’s shutdown occurred after he was relaunched following Thibodeau exiling him for nine games because of ineffective play. 

Thibodeau played Walker heavy minutes in six straight games, including both ends of a back-to-back in Detroit and Minnesota. On New Year’s Eve in Oklahoma City, Walker’s pregame routine was halted when he didn’t feel right. Tests showed no structural damage but it’s now been nearly three weeks since he last played — in Detroit on Dec. 29. 

“I don’t want to get into a situation where it’s on off, on off,’’ Thibodeau said. “I want to get to a point where he feels confident, in a good spot, a good place and he can go.’’ 

The Knicks have played 44 games and Walker has been a part of just 24 of them. Alec Burks has filled in well recently as starting point guard but had a six-point clunker Monday. 

Kemba Walker warms up prior to the Knicks' loss to the Hornets.
Kemba Walker warms up prior to the Knicks’ loss to the Hornets.
NBAE via Getty Images

“There’s nothing that can replace the intensity of a game,’’ Thibodeau said in explaining the long layoff. “When you have a period of time off and you’re not doing anything, there has to be gradual buildup where you can take the contact and be comfortable with it. He’s ramped up pretty good. He probably hasn’t taken enough contact yet.’’ 

Obi Toppin has been in a 2 ¹/₂-week funk but finally looked his aggressive self Monday when he scored seven points in a four-minute stint of the first half. He buried a 3-pointer, scored on a drive, then put down an alley-oop from Immanuel Quickley. But Thibodeau is giving him scant minutes and he was taken out after 4:41. When he came back in the third quarter, Toppin shot an airball from 3 but wound up with 11 points in 16 minutes and was a team-best plus 12. Julius Randle, the starting power forward, was minus-22. … New York City mayor Eric Adams addressed the Garden crowd before the game for an MLK Day message. … The Hornets won big despite their bench shooting 3-for-19.

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