- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Validation was attached to the preseason e-mail announcement that the Washington Wizards would be participating in one of five NBA games on Christmas Day. Bulbs in the Madison Square Garden marquee will light up to spell “Washington Wizards” on Thursday, confirming the Wizards‘ rise in panache is not just realized locally. They will play the New York Knicks on the NBA’s showcase day, tipping off at noon to start a run of daylong basketball playing in the background as wrapping paper is torn.

Most Wizards placed a moderate amount of added value of playing on Christmas — even the ever-stoic coach, Randy Wittman.

“This is our first time, so, I think we should look at it as enjoying the fact we’re one of five games that’s being played,” Wittman said. “They’re going to be opening presents and watching us. I think we need to look at it that way.”

Paul Pierce has played in more prominent games than any other Washington player. He’ll be leaving his kids behind to be on national TV.

“You’re a little more ready,” Pierce said. “A little more adrenaline flowing. You know everybody’s watching. You kind of get a playoff feel when you get on that national TV, especially Christmas.”

For the most of the season, the Wizards were giving the league confirmation that they were a worthy Christmas choice. Weeks atop the Southeast Division, off to their best home start in history and next-level performances from John Wall proved that. Though, the Wizards‘ early season emergence as a player in the Eastern Conference has taken a mild detour the last three games. They have lost two of them, and narrowly won the game in Miami.

“It’s an obvious challenge,” Pierce said. “We lost two in a row at home. We’ve got to somewhere, somehow find ways to make it up here on the road in New York. From here on out, we have a tough road of us. It would have been great to get the two at home, but we didn’t. We got a challenge ahead of us. I think this is really going to test us the next couple weeks.”

Threaded through the three games was an inability to grab 50/50 balls. Long rebounds have become the norm in the 3-point-heavy NBA. Of late, the Wizards have not been able to corral those. Wittman was upset about that Sunday night when the smaller but quicker Phoenix Suns zipped around the Wizards to win such plays. He lamented it again Tuesday night after the Chicago Bulls came to Verizon Center and beat the Wizards, 99-91. Chicago pulled in 52 rebounds. The Wizards just 41.

“The 50/50 balls killed us again,” Wittman said. “We would play defense for 22, 23 seconds — really stellar defense — and they would have to take a shot, then they got the offensive rebound or the loose ball as it’s rolling around.”

Twice, the Bulls penalized the Wizards for their shortcoming with unlikely 3-pointers. Power forward Pau Gasol made his first of the season at the end of the first quarter. Derrick Rose dropped one just before the second quarter buzzer. Those six points during an evening long rock fight were crucial.

When the Wizards land in New York, they will find a more hospitable opponent. The Knicks have plummeted to become one of the dregs of the league. New York is 5-23 under first-year head coach Derek Fisher, who, along with team president Phil Jackson, is trying to install the triangle offense. It has not worked. They have lost five consecutive games.

Only the Philadelphia 76ers, who purposely dismantled their team to build for the future through the draft, are worse than New York. And, the margin is narrow: Philadelphia has one fewer win.

Carmelo Anthony remains cashing checks, shooting and playing disinterested defense for the Knicks. They have few other options beyond Anthony, gunner J.R. Smith, who may not play Wednesday, and aging Amar’e Stoudemire. The Knicks are 27th in points per game. They are 29th in rebounds per game; 27th in blocks. They don’t shoot well either, coming into Wednesday 20th in team field-goal percentage.

“It’s a nightmare,” Smith told ESPN.com about the season.

No NBA team has played on Christmas more than the Knicks. They are 22-27 all-time on the holiday. The Wizards won’t just have the excitement of something new, but facing the Knicks after losing back-to-back games could be just the present they are in need of.

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