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Phoenix Suns’ Dionte Christmas turns tide of game in first NBA appearance

Dionte Christmas was expected to be an afterthought in the Phoenix Suns’ rotation as they entered the 2013-14 campaign. If it weren’t for the team’s trade of Marcin Gortat and three other players to the Washington Wizards on Oct. 25, there may not have been room on the Suns’ roster for the former Temple shooting guard.

With the Suns in danger of letting the Utah Jazz mount a big lead Friday at US Airways Center, head coach Jeff Hornacek sent in the sharpshooting Christmas for his first bit of action in an NBA game.

The 27-year-old rookie entered the game with his team down eight roughly three minutes into the third quarter. He made an instant impact, scoring seven points in his first three minutes on the floor; his three-pointer tied the game at 54 halfway through the quarter. The coach stuck with him until the end of the period. He made another bucket in the fourth before being replaced by Eric Bledsoe with 10:59 left in the game.

“At the beginning of the game, a couple of guys [such as Bledsoe] were in foul trouble, so I knew of a possibility that I might have to get in there,” Christmas said after the game. “And coach told me at halftime, ‘Christmas, just stay ready.’ And I was like one of the first guys to come off the bench, and I knew that at that time we needed a spark; we needed some energy. We weren’t really playing energetic like we did the first game [against Portland].

“And that’s the type of guy I am: I’m energetic, and I’m always ready. I’ve been waiting for this all my life.”

The 6-foot-5 guard said he wasn’t too fazed by seeing his first action in the NBA, and added that he thought he impacted the game with more than just his offense.

“I know what it is to be excited, but to also remain calm and be professional, especially at a time like that. Coach got me in there at a crucial time. That means he has a lot of confidence in me, so in return, I have to show him that I have to be professional about it and go out there and give him everything I got,” Christmas said. “And I thought I did a great job on the defensive end; that’s one thing he preaches — about defense. And I thought I just played solidly.”

Christmas came back into the game with just under six minutes to play and stayed on the floor down the stretch as the Suns won 87-84, improving to 2-0 to start the season.

After the game, Hornacek described why he turned to the undrafted rookie just after halftime as the Suns had fallen to their biggest deficit of the game.

“He gets streaky and hot. And the way we were shooting the ball, I figured let’s put him in there; he might make some shots for us. And he did,” the first-year head coach said. “He’s a kid that deserves to be in the NBA. He does what we ask of him. On top of that, he plays pretty tough defense.”

Christmas played internationally for four years before joining the Suns’ 2013 Summer League squad and making enough of an impression that the team signed him to a contract in September.

He finished his first NBA regular season game with nine points on 3-of-6 shooting from the field (including 1-of-2 from behind the three-point line) and 2-of-2 on free throws while adding four rebounds in 15 minutes against the Jazz.