Knicks’ Kemba Walker may not play back-to-backs when he returns

Kemba Walker still hasn’t played in 2022.

Despite coach Tom Thibodeau talking for days about how close he is, Walker missed his seventh straight game Wednesday. Walker was shut down on New Year’s Eve after a back-to-back set in Minnesota and Detroit.

Thibodeau didn’t rule out the possibility that even upon the Bronx native’s return, he won’t play back-to-backs again this season.

“He’s close,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks rolled past the Mavericks 108-85. “We’ll see where it is [Thursday]. He’s not quite there. I think the soreness is pretty good. It’s just ramping everything up again. He’ll know. We’ll see how it goes [Thursday] when we get him in and get some work in, see how it responds. It’s really how it responds the next day after he loads it up.’’

Walker’s return, ironically, might be for their next contest, Saturday in Atlanta, where his season hit its first speed bump.

On that late November night, Walker elected to sit out the second leg of a back-to-back, and Thibodeau started Alec Burks at point guard.

Kemba Walker
NBAE via Getty Images

It worked well in an easy Knicks win. Speculation is Thibodeau was unhappy Walker didn’t play, knowing Derrick Rose was also missing, that it moved the coach to make his big starting-lineup change. Walker was then exiled for nine straight games.

In desperation because of COVID-19 infections and the loss of Rose to ankle surgery, Walker was relaunched in Boston. But after six games of heavy minutes — and electric play — he was shelved due to soreness.

Now the new strategy might be one the Celtics used last season: no back-to-back sets.

Thibodeau said he’s heard no concrete orders from the medical staff, but the writing is on the wall after the Minnesota-Detroit back-to-back fiasco in which Walker logged 52 minutes.

“Whatever he can handle when he comes back,’’ Thibodeau said. “That’s your first order of business, you always see what they recommend and you’re going to follow their guidelines. We wanted to make sure it completely calmed down and load him up again.

“I think they’ll approach it the same way. They’ll talk to him and see where he is. If he can go, he’ll go. If he can’t go, if it’s smarter to give him that game off, give him that game off. Right now we’ve got guys back so we’ve got good depth.’’

After the Knicks’ starting unit had its best game of the season Wednesday, it’s fair to speculate if Thibodeau would ease Walker back off the bench and keep Alec Burks as starting point guard. 

Julius Randle, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds, wanted nothing to do with talking about the fans turning on him, but he was effusive about the recent standout play of center Mitchell Robinson, who is turning into a lethal force on the offensive glass and as a rim protector.

“[He’s] more confident,’’ Randle said before Robinson had 19 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks against the Mavericks. “Getting in better shape. Obviously being out for such a long time it takes a while. And just being aggressive. As he’s getting in better shape he’s able to make reads out on the court he’s able to think the game better.”

Nerlens Noel made his return from COVID-19 after needing several days of conditioning. The former Maverick played in just his 18th game this season, logging 21 minutes and registering four points, six rebounds and two blocks.

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