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

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

That move took place a month back on Nov. 27, but due to the long list of Knicks’ players entering the NBA’s health and safety protocols and an injury to Derrick Rose, Thibodeau has had no choice but to return Walker to his place in the starting lineup.

And so far, he’s made a pretty strong case to remain a starter even once players come off of the COVID-19 list.

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

In his first game back in the rotation, Walker poured in 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.

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

His outburst ended up coming in a losing effort, but it was the most points Walker had scored in a game since 2019. He shot an efficient 14-for-27 from the field and lit it up from beyond the arc, going 7-of-14 from 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 one be loud enough for Thibodeau to consider keeping Walker in the lineup? He may not have a choice.

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

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

 RecordOFF RTGDEF RTGNET RTG
Before benching Kemba10-9107.9108.5-0.6
While Kemba was benched3-7109.6115.9-6.3
Since Kemba’s return to lineup1-2112.7113.1-0.4

As you can see, the Knicks were actually at their worst without Kemba playing. Their defensive rating was the highest it has been all season, and even though their offensive rating went up in the slightest, it’s improved even more since his return to the lineup.

This New York team can absolutely use a shot creator of Walker’s caliber, and we saw that as he gave the Knicks a chance to win that game at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. Without Walker, that could have very easily been an ugly home loss heading into a big Christmas Day matchup at The Mecca.

The Garden was rocking for the Bronx native, the team rallied around their high-spirited veteran and even though it wasn’t the result they were looking for, it became clear they’re 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.