Remember this Saturday night in Hotlanta on Thanksgiving Weekend.
The Knicks’ 99-90 victory over the Hawks could serve as a turning point in what has been a wobbly season, knocking off their playoff conquerors, finding their 2020-21 defensive grit and perhaps finding a new starting point guard.
After 20 games, the starting point guard situation has become the elephant in the room. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau will have to decide soon if they are better off with Alec Burks as the starting point guard or their newly signed former All-Star Kemba Walker.
Is Walker suited for a more nondescript role off the bench? Walker is shooting well from the outside but not doing all the other things a quarterback must do.
But this might be more than a basketball decision. Walker was brought in amid backpage headlines as a Bronx legend coming home with Fat Joe heaping superlatives at the press conference and actor Chazz Palminteri performing a “Bronx Story” video.
Burks has the lowest profile of the rotation players, is intensely quiet, despises media interviews and owner James Dolan might not recognize him if they bumped into each other on Broadway.
On Saturday night, Walker took the night off in Atlanta to rest his left knee even though Derrick Rose was still out, and the former UConn star played just 23 minutes on Friday in the Knicks’ loss to the Suns.
But that’s the new norm for the 31-year-old Walker, whose arthritic knee can’t last 82 games or back-to-back sets. Walker was a livewire cheering from the bench.
It would be surprising if Thibodeau made the move now to Burks at starter and demoted Walker when the Knicks visit the Nets Tuesday.
But the Knicks coach can’t be happy with this load-management scenario nor Walker’s team-worst minus-122.
The starting five has been much maligned this season and Walker hasn’t jelled as quickly as everyone hoped on either end. He’s always been an undersized point guard, listed at just 6-feet, but made up for it with his explosiveness, which appears to be missing because of his balky knee.
It’s worth noting Thibodeau, when discussing the 6-foot-6 Burks as starting point guard, said of the former Utah Jazz veteran, “What Alec gives us is size.” Thibodeau likes big point guards and often talked about his former starter Elfrid Payton (6-foot-3) in that vein.
On a night Burks filled in for Walker, he scored 23 points, and wings RJ Barrett and Evan Fournier had efficient games, combining for 35 points on 13 of 24 shooting.
When asked late Saturday night if he has a decision to make with the starting five, Thibodeau said he will do “what’s best for the team.” Walker is a terrific teammate and even might understand if he goes to the bench and tries to find a smaller role there.
In any event, busting up the red-hot Hawks without center Nerlens Noel or Rose could turn into a seminal moment.
The Knicks stand at 11-9 — in seventh place in the Eastern Conference — and face the Nets Tuesday as they continue a brutal stretch of their schedule.
“It’s a matter of consistency for us,” Fournier said. “We know we can beat anybody. We know we can lose to anybody and play very inconsistently. So we need to look at that win, what we did good, and do it again in a couple of days.”
After 10 straight subpar outings, Barrett looked vibrant in Atlanta and full of hope.
“Definitely this is a great baseline to have, to repeat that and keep that edge we have,” Barrett said. “We don’t have to lose like we did [Friday] night (against Phoenix) to play like we did today. Keep that focus, keep that edge and I think we’ll be really good.”
Julius Randle’s adjustment this season to a lesser scoring role still is a work in progress as he notched his second straight single-digit outing Saturday and was razzed by Hawks fans still celebrating shutting down Randle in the playoffs.
But Randle still played with grit in the second half and gets to handle the ball more as a point forward with Burks at point guard. The Hawks, ranked third in the league in scoring average, scored just 14 points in the fourth quarter.
This was the steely will the Knicks showed all last season that had often been missing after a 5-1 start.
“On a back-to-back, it’s who’s going to fight longer and be together the whole game,” Barrett said. “We did that tonight. Definitely a great defensive game from start to finish. We’re very proud of that.”
Fournier said the styles are different between Burks and Walker.
“It’s more about tendencies,” Fournier said. “When you add someone to a lineup who has different tendencies than Kemba, he likes to, on the pick and roll, put the guard on his hip, bring the defense close and throw a floater or lob. He plays with less pace than Kemba. He did a great job [Saturday] and shot the hell out of the ball and it was good to see (him) being very aggressive.”
Thibodeau gets paid $5 million a year to make tough calls, and he’s soon got to make an elephant-sized one. The Knicks’ season may hinge on it.