Christmas a rite of passage for Wizards, Pierce

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MIAMI (AP) — The Associated Press will periodically look at the changing landscape of the NBA during the season from varied perspectives: A player's viewpoint, from the bench, and from the business side. In this installment, Washington Wizards forward Paul Pierce sits down to talk about the significance of Christmas to players:


For the third straight year, Paul Pierce will awaken to play on Christmas in New York.

The feeling never gets old.

Playing on Christmas Day — the traditional start of the NBA's national broadcast schedule, and when fans seem to begin paying more attention to basketball as football winds down — is still a big deal to players. Pierce is trying to make sure that the Washington Wizards understand the significance.

Of the 14 players currently on the Washington roster, eight have never played in a Christmas game. Pierce has played in five, not including two others that he missed because of injury.

"By Christmas, you should know what type of team you are," Pierce said. "You should have an identity. Around Christmas, this is the time you should be showing everybody, 'This is who we are.' You're in it or you're out of it. This the time for the rest of the league, the rest of the world to find out, this is who we are."

Here's who the Wizards are: A contender in the Eastern Conference.

Off to a 19-7 start, the Wizards are proving Pierce made the right decision when he raised eyebrows this past summer by deciding to move to Washington. They're on pace for their best season in 30 years, are led by a point guard likely worthy of some MVP buzz in John Wall, have no one among the league's top 25 scorers yet have six players averaging double figures.

And now for the first time since 2008, the Wizards get to play on the league's showcase day.

"A lot of times, I'm opening presents with my kids the day before because I'm gone on Christmas," said Pierce, who visited New York for a game against Brooklyn (when he was still with Boston) on Dec. 25 in 2012, and was part of a home game with Brooklyn on the holiday last year. "I think out of six or seven Christmas games, I think I've played at home one time. We've been on the road pretty much the whole time.

"Sometimes you get to be there and open presents with your kids and enjoy the day with them. But they get to watch Daddy on TV and know I'll be coming home that night, so it's fun."

Pierce will actually be in New York for the fourth straight Christmas — he didn't play when Boston visited the Knicks in 2011, but was on the trip.

Other players who also changed addresses this past offseason will also be playing on Christmas, including LeBron James and Kevin Love with the Cavaliers and Pau Gasol with the Bulls. And for the league's biggest stars, playing is as annual a rite as caroling and egg nog.

If he plays Thursday, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers will be taking the court on Christmas for the 16th time — just 17 points shy of getting to 400 on the holiday. Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade is No. 2 on the active Christmas-scoring list, with 227 points in nine appearances.

Wade insists that playing on Christmas is still a very big deal.

"It's the game you grew up watching," Wade said. "Christmas, it's the game that you watched every year and dreamed about being in one day, the day that you knew everybody was watching whatever game was on."

This year, the Wizards — who visit the Knicks in the start of the Christmas quintuple header — are the game that's on, or one of them, anyway.

Wall has never played on Christmas, nor has Washington's other young guard, Bradley Beal. And while every game on the NBA schedule is televised somewhere, Pierce knows that the exposure his young backcourt teammates will get on Thursday might be like none other they've experienced.

"You remember as a kid, oh, man, we get to watch Michael Jordan on Christmas, Magic Johnson, all your favorite players, all the key matchups," Pierce said. "And now being a part of it six, seven, eight times, you're kind of used to it, you kind of embrace it, but you're still up for it."

Moreover, it's a chance for fans to see a Washington team that they might see in April, May and possibly beyond.

Entering this week, only four NBA teams had better records than the Wizards. Barring an all-out collapse, Washington will be putting together a string of consecutive playoff appearances for the second time since the 1980s. It's a team with a mix of young talent and veteran savvy, which is exactly what Pierce envisioned months ago.

Sure, there will be plenty of presents to open on Thursday.

Pierce thinks the biggest gifts for the Wizards are yet to come.

"I knew I was coming to a team that was hungry, wants to win and wants to take the next step," Pierce said. "A lot of these guys, they've exceeded expectations ... and from the outside looking in, you can say 'Man, they look hungry.' But you don't know how much until you see them every day. They don't want to be good. They want to be great."

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