Christmas arrives early

At the 2:21 mark of the first quarter, there he was. Rakeem Christmas stood at the scorer’s table, shooting shirt off, ready to check in.

Then he did.

It was by far the earliest Christmas, whom the Pacers acquired in a trade with Cleveland a month after the 2015 NBA Draft, had ever entered a game. He had played in just eight career games before then, and scored a total over 12 points.

But with Al Jefferson a late scratch due to dental pain, an opportunity was there for the 25-year-old Friday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that plays big. And this was an opportunity he was eagerly awaiting.

[Notebook: Streak ends, relief felt, Thad returns]

Christmas has played in eight of 58 games this season.

In 14 minutes of on-court time, Christmas added energy and toughness to a team desperately needed it. He finished with four points, five rebounds, a block, and three fouls in the most extensive action since he was at Syracuse. A 102-92 Pacers win, ending a six-game slide.

“I just wanted to come out and do what I do,” he said at his locker while surrounded by more reporters than ever. “That’s what I did and that boosted everyone’s confidence, and we started enjoying the game and getting after it.”

Christmas explained how he was in the weight room getting his normal pre-game lift in when coach McMillan said to be ready.

“I’ve been doing it all last year and this year,” he said of his drives back and forth on I-69 to their D-League affiliate, “and you just have to be ready when your time comes. My team has been great, very encouraging for me. They kept telling me to wait my turn. Tonight came and it’s been great so far.”

Over the offseason, Christmas analyzed film to find ways where he could contribute. For much of the season, he has witnessed the Pacers’ struggles while on the bench in street clothes. With McMillan stressing toughness and physical play over the last two days, that’s exactly what he aimed to provide.

“I had to learn. Over the last year, I was trying to figure out what my niche was,” he said. “This year, I really figured out that it was setting screens, rebounding, being physical, and just trying to be that tough guy for the team.”

Paul George wasn’t surprised by Christmas’ play.

“That’s been Rakeem all season long in practice. Just happy they finally gave the kid a chance. I thought he could’ve helped us a lot earlier.”

Teammate Glenn Robinson III had experienced a similar wait time, then finally earned a spot in the rotation when Paul George missed time, then Monta Ellis.

Nobody was happier for Christmas than GRIII.

“I’ve been waiting on him,” Robinson III said. “I think the whole team has been waiting on him to make the move. I don’t know why they don’t play him. He screens, he rebounds. It’s crazy, like signing a dude for (two) years and don’t play him. I’m just happy he did his thing.

“Every day I tried to talk to him and tell him to stay confident because I was in the same position as him. I was in the same boat. I tried telling him, ‘You’re going to get your opportunity. Everybody is watching every day. If you don’t get your opportunity here, another team will use you.’ And tonight, he did his thing. If we don’t play him, man, somebody else will play him. It’s crazy. Hopefully we do play him.

“That’s my guy.”

It’s important for Christmas to get an opportunity before the season ends. Two years in and we truly don’t know if he can play in the league. All of his minutes had come in garbage time. Three minutes at Cleveland, two minutes against Detroit, three minutes against Houston.

And while he still is quick to pick up fouls, this was an impressive stint overall.

“Now that everybody is healthy, it’s just hard,” McMillan said after the win. “It’s hard to get guys in the lineup. … The fact that we do have everybody healthy, we can play guys as needed. And tonight we needed Roc. And we’ll see about tomorrow [in Miami].”

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