Playing on Christmas Day has meaning for Jarrett Jack, but at this stage of his career, every time he plays, it’s special.
“To be honest,” Jack said, “every game means something to me.”
The Knicks point guard suffered a career-threatening right knee injury almost two years ago, tearing his ACL on Jan. 2, 2016, in Boston while with the Nets. There were many days and nights when he wasn’t sure if he would ever play again, especially after tearing the meniscus in his right knee after two games with the Pelicans last spring.
But Jack, 34, worked tirelessly to get his body ready and knees strong enough to play this season. He’s excited about the Knicks’ Christmas Day game against the 76ers at Madison Square Garden — only his second Christmas game in 13 NBA seasons — but he views every game he plays as a gift.
“Every day,” Jack said, “because I understand in one game, it could be taken away from you for a substantial amount of time. That’s what happened to me. I don’t take none of it for granted.”
Jack’s season has been like the Knicks’: Few could have predicted the kind of success they’ve had. It’s as if they needed each other.
He was the last player the Knicks signed and the only one on the team with a non-guaranteed contract. Yet Jack has proved invaluable.
The Knicks signed Ramon Sessions to be their starting point guard, but after they started 0-3, Jeff Hornacek replaced Sessions with Jack. Since then, they have gone 17-12.
Jack has run the team well, hit some big shots and mentored rookie Frank Ntilikina. Jack, who is playing for his eighth team, is enjoying his new role. He’s averaging 6.8 points and 5.9 assists in 26.2 minutes.
“I know some of the guys may look at me funny when I’m up cheering or I’m up hype a little bit,” Jack said. “But I know how fortunate and blessed I am and how happy I am to be back in the league and playing pretty good.
“I know what it’s like to be sitting at home wondering if you’re ever going to be able to play again or if people think you can play again.”
Jack is proving he can — with the attitude that he has to prove himself every single day to the Knicks. It’s working for him and for them.
“I’m the only one on the team with a non-guaranteed contract; it keeps me on my toes,” he said. “It forces me to stay sharp. It doesn’t allow you to get lax. You can’t be like, ‘I don’t feel like getting my shots today.’ You don’t have that luxury. Your situation is a little different. You’re in super-grind mode, feet to the floor every single time.
“I’m not putting that aside. That’s part of my want or my why to get me up in the morning, to get here early, to get my shots up first, to do all these things. Whatever your list is, for me that’s added to it. It’s the first time I’ve been in this situation. I might be like, ‘I want to do this, I want to do this. But no, you ain’t got a guaranteed deal yet.’ Boom. Put that in that pot. That’s just part of my makeup for the time being.”
Jack scored 17 points in his only other Christmas game, helping Portland to a victory over Seattle and rookie Kevin Durant 10 years ago. He’s happy to be back on the big stage, and even happier that’s he’s playing at all.
SEASON’S GREETINGS AND BEATINGS
Knicks fans already have received their holiday gift. No one expected the Knicks to wake up Christmas morning with a 17-15 record.
Not to play the Grinch, but they likely are entering the make-or-break portion of their season. After Monday’s game, the Knicks will play 16 of 20 and 19 of 25 on the road.
This stretch, which features one six-game western swing and trips to San Antonio, Boston and Toronto, could determine whether the Knicks go all-in on playing and developing their young players or on a playoff push during the last two months of the season.
The Knicks’ road record is 2-10. Eight of the losses are by at least 12 points and they’re being outscored by an average of 10 points in those 12 games.
“When we can get to the point when we’re playing defense as well as we can play defense no matter what the offensive side looks like, then we’ll start to win a lot more games on the road,” Michael Beasley said. “We get down after that and we turn into a one-pass, no-pass team. That’s not really our strength.”
DECK THE HALLS
The NBA is celebrating 70 years of playing Christmas Day games. The Knicks are playing for an NBA-high 52nd time, and their 22 wins are tied with the Lakers for the most.
Other interesting numbers:
Best buddies and teammates again, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have scored 301 points and passed for 76 assists each on Christmas Day. Cleveland faces the Warriors in a rematch of the last three NBA Finals.
The Celtics are playing for the 31st time and, remarkably, for the first time at home. They played 28 on the road and two at a neutral site. Boston hosts Washington.
The 76ers are making their first Christmas Day appearance in 16 years.
Toronto reached the Eastern Conference finals two years ago and averaged 51 wins the previous four seasons. But Raptors All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have never played on Christmas and won’t this year, either.
SIXERS IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The 76ers have been doormats for years, but they’re becoming media darlings. Last week, ESPN had All-Access day with the 76ers; the network was with the team from early morning on Dec. 15 until their night ended with a triple-overtime loss to the Thunder.
Let’s remember, the 76ers cut payroll, limited veterans’ minutes and tried to get the best draft picks possible — a practice better known as tanking. They were 178 games below .500 during the previous four seasons.
But when healthy, Joel Embiid looks as if he can be one of the best players in the league, and he’s an entertaining character. Embiid and rookie Ben Simmons could be a formidable pair if they stay healthy. So everyone is intrigued.
76ers coach Brett Brown said he’s “not a fan” of all the extra coverage. “I like living behind closed doors,” he said. Still after all the jokes and misery Brown and the 76ers have experienced in recent years, he recognizes it’s better than the alternative.
“This is a good thing for the program, a real statement for the program,” he said. “We welcome ESPN under the circumstances as we’re growing. I don’t look at that as ‘oh, look where we are.’ I don’t say that. I like the fact that they say, ‘Joel Embiid is an interesting story, a hell of a talent’ and ‘Ben Simmons, what’s going on with him and the growth of the program?’ I understand why people are paying attention a little bit more now than they used to.”
HONORS FOR WARNEY
Former Stony Brook star Jameel Warney has been named the USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year. Warney, who is playing for the Mavericks’ Texas Legends affilliate in the G League, helped lead Team USA to a gold medal at the FIBA AmeriCup 2017 over the summer and two FIBA World Cup qualifying wins in November. Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, who guided that team, was named USA Basketball National Coach of the Year.
AEG, which owns the Staples Center, reportedly sold $824,000 in merchandise Monday when the Lakers retired Kobe Bryant’s Nos. 8 and 24. Before the ceremony, Nike Basketball tweeted, “8 v 24. Discuss . . . ” Bryant tweeted back, “Different animal, same beast.”