With a 31-30 record, the Indiana Pacers currently occupy 7th place in the Eastern Conference standings. If the team wants to make a push for a higher seed in the playoffs, these remaining 21 games are of the utmost importance.
As the playoffs get closer, the Pacers and other teams will be looking to solidify their rotations. Since the All-Star break, Rakeem Christmas has provided a nice boost of energy as the backup center, his effort has been contagious for the bench, and his last name has only added to Pacers’ lore with wonderful (or terrible) Christmas puns.
Christmas, who was drafted in the 2015 draft by the Timberwolves, traded to the Cavaliers on draft night, and then later traded to the Pacers during the summer for a future 2019 second-round pick that can be traced all the way back to when the Pacers drafted Dale Davis, had yet to receive meaningful minutes on the big stage in his career until now.
The Pacers matchup versus the Memphis Grizzlies on February 24th provided Christmas, who averaged 17.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in his senior season at Syracuse, his biggest opportunity to date in just his ninth career game played, and he did not disappoint.
“I’m really proud of Rakeem being called up and he sparked us and played huge minutes,” said 4-time All-Star Paul George after the Christmas debut. “It’s a tough task playing against Zach (Randolph) and Marc (Gasol), but he did an unbelievable job. I thought he could have helped us a lot earlier.”
With veteran Al Jefferson unable to suit up due to dental pain, Christmas filled in. The athletic center played 14 solid minutes while posting four points, five rebounds and a block. These are not eye-popping numbers, but the energy Christmas provided off the bench would help lift his teammates to victory over the Grizzlies, ending a then 6-game losing streak.
“I’ve been waiting on him,” said Glenn Robinson III, the newly minted NBA Slam Dunk Champion. “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.”
Since joining the rotation against the Grizzlies, Christmas, who was a D-League All-Star last season with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, has appeared in four consecutive games. Christmas has averaged the following stats per game in this stretch:
15.8 minutes – 58% FG made – 4.8 points
4 rebounds – 0.75 blocks – 3.5 fouls
While fresh off his inspiring play in his debut, Christmas elaborated, “I just wanted to come out and do what I do. That’s what I did and that boosted everyone’s confidence, and we started enjoying the game and getting after it. 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.”
While Christmas struggled in his last game against the San Antonio Spurs with four fouls, three turnovers and only a single point, rebound and block, his first three games were impressive for a player in his first meaningful time on the court. Against the Houston Rockets, Christmas put up a career-high 10 points, three rebounds, and was +19 while on the court.
While playing limited minutes, the talent and desire are there for Christmas. The biggest hindrance for him receiving more playing time seems to be himself. If he cannot limit his fouls, then McMillan may not keep him in the rotation. This has been an issue through his time with the Mad Ants as well.
If Christmas can keep up his tenacity while not fouling as much, he should become a solid staple in the Pacers’ rotation. The Pacers bench has looked much better without Al Jefferson on the court since Christmas joined the rotation as Rodney Stuckey and Monta Ellis have both played well since the All-Star break as well. This may have something to do with having more of a roll threat in the pick and roll than the slow, plodding Jefferson. The upside for Indiana to play Christmas over Jefferson is clear; by giving Christmas more experience, the Pacers will be better off in the long run.
Larry’s team + Rakeem’s dream = Larry Christmas!