Birch Stayed Sharp While Waiting For His Opportunity

Reserve center filled in for Bamba against Bucks
by John Denton

ORLANDO – Not long after Khem Birch re-signed with the Orlando Magic as a free agent back in July, the third-year pro sat down with head coach Steve Clifford and the two talked about how he would again be the break-glass-if-necessary, third-string center behind starter Nikola Vucevic and promising 7-footer Mo Bamba.

Birch’s reaction might surprise some – and no, that doesn’t mean he angrily demanded a trade or pouted about being relegated to being little more than an insurance policy at center for the Magic. Instead, Birch reacted in a manner that showed how selfless he truly is when it comes to the success of the Magic.

``He’s the best,’’ Clifford said of the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Birch. ``He came to me, when he re-signed, and we talked about the whole situation. He said, `My only question is do you think it would be smart when the G League starts playing if I went down and played some games so that when my turn comes, I’m in rhythm?’ How many guys would look at it that way? He’s the best, the best.’’

Birch, a key cog in Orlando’s run to the NBA playoffs last spring, was vaulted back into the Magic’s regular rotation on Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks when Bamba was rested as a precautionary measure. Bamba, the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, missed the final 30 games of last season with a stress fracture in his left tibia and the Magic want to limit his exposure early this season when the franchise plays back-to-back sets of games. Clifford said Bamba should be cleared to play on Saturday when Orlando hosts Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.

Enter Birch, who filled in for Bamba for the final 2 ½ months of last season and helped the Magic go 22-9 down the stretch. He played well in February (5.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 11 games), March (6.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 0.3 blocks in 14 games), April (6.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in five games) and the Canadian native was also a bright spot in the postseason (5.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in five games) against the Toronto Raptors.

Birch didn’t play in Orlando’s first four games, but he has worked to keep himself ready by doing sprint drills and abdominal workouts after games. He didn’t think it was that big of a deal asking to go to the Magic’s G League affiliate in Lakeland because his focus is always on keeping his game ready when he’s called upon.

``I mean, I just love basketball and I want to play,’’ said Birch, who worked most of the offseason to expand his shooting range and he even drilled one of three 3-point shots in the preseason. ``I know my situation (as a third-stringer), so in order to get reps I’ve got to go to the G League. And also, I’ve got to get accustomed to shooting threes in the game, so that would help me out as well.’’

PROMOTION FOR JEFFERSON: Continuing with their mission to have their young players grow and then retain and reward them, the Magic signed forward/center Amile Jefferson to an NBA contract on Friday. Prior to the start of the season, the Magic exercised contractual options on young players Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac, Wes Iwundu and Bamba to keep them in the fold for the foreseeable future.

Jefferson originally signed a two-way contract with the Magic back in June 30, but his new NBA deal means there will be no restrictions on how many days he can spend at the NBA level. Last season, Jefferson was on a two-way deal and he played 12 games with the Magic and 34 in the G League with the Lakeland Magic.

The addition of Jefferson gives the Magic 14 players on their full-time roster, while Josh Magette is on a two-way deal. Clifford said Jefferson earned his promotion with the growth he’s made since last season.

``He’s so deserving because … he’s a hard-working, very reliable, dependable player,’’ Clifford said. ``Last (season), he was with us after Mo’s injury and (Jefferson) can play the (power forward position) or the (center spot). Super smart and super competitive and if he has to play (on Friday), we’ll play well. We’ll function well when he’s out there.’’

ON THE DEFENSIVE:

Whereas most teams usually have one defender assigned to shadow Giannis Antetokounmpo, even checking in and out of games just as the Milwaukee Bucks’ superstar does, the Magic have the luxury of throwing a variety of different players at the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it easy in any way while trying to slow down arguably the league’s most versatile and dynamic player. But at least the Magic can give the 6-foot-11, 242-pound forward different looks and they’re somewhat protected against foul trouble.

In Isaac, Aaron Gordon and veteran reserve Al-Farouq Aminu – an offseason addition via free agency – the Magic can run a steady stream of different defenders at Antetokounmpo, who came into Friday averaging 23.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.3 steals a game. The nearly 7-foot Isaac has great length and lateral quickness, Gordon is known for his combination of strength and length and Aminu offers a combination of size, grit and veteran savvy.

``I think it’s a strength of our team, having versatile defenders who can guard multiple positions,’’ said Isaac, who ranks second in the NBA in blocks a game (2.75). ``I thought we did all right (against Antetokounmpo last season). We put up a good fight and we had a good game. It’s just about coming ready and with the mindset of being ready to fight and then putting the best 48 minutes out there.’’

TEST OF WILLS: Friday’s game between Orlando and Milwaukee featured a matchup of the proverbial immovable object against the unstoppable force.

Much of Milwaukee’s success has been built around the dynamic game of Antetokounmpo and the many 3-point shooters it can surround him with when foes dare to double team defensively. Meanwhile, the Magic have constructed a roster centered around defensive size and versatility and that has allowed them to become of the NBA’s best teams at shutting down foes at the 3-point line.

Milwaukee came into Friday ranked second in the league 3-point makes per game (16), second in 3-point attempts per game (45.8) and 15thin 3-point shooting percentage (35 percent). While Antetokounmpo doesn’t factor into Milwaukee’s long-range attack – he came into Friday just two of 14 from beyond the arc – he has plenty of teammates to take up the shooting slack. Coming in to Friday’s game, Khris Middleton (3.3), Kyle Korver (2.5), Wesley Matthews (2.3), Pat Connaughton (2.0) and center Brook Lopez (1.8) all made more than one 3-pointer a game on average.

The Magic have become one of the league’s best at shutting down the shooting of other teams. They came into Friday ranked second in the NBA in 3-point makes allowed per game (8.8) and second in 3-point percentage allowed (26.1). That success factors heavily into their overall defensive supremacy and has allowed them to post the NBA’s second best overall defensive rating allowed (94.2 points per 100 possessions).

Clifford knew his team’s ability to defend both Antetokounmpo and the Bucks at the 3-point line would be put to the test.

``(Antetokounmpo) is a terrific scorer, he scores in a lot of ways and they do a terrific job in how they utilize him. You have to help or he’s at the rim,’’ Clifford said. ``But if that second defender comes, he’s big and he can really pass. A lot of their 3-point shots are from him kicking it out (after driving into the paint). There are a lot of reads involved.’’

UP NEXT: The Magic will be back in action again on Saturday night when they host the Nuggets. As if facing a Denver team that won 54 games last season on the second night of a back-to-back wasn’t difficult enough, the Magic will be on a major rest disadvantage. The Nuggets lost a second straight game in New Orleans on Thursday night, but had Friday off to rest up while Orlando was facing Milwaukee.

The Magic have lost six straight games against Denver and 11 of the last 13. Denver captured the season series 2-0 last season, winning 12-118 in overtime in Orlando and 112-87 in the Mile High City.

Orlando has just 11 back-to-back sets of games this season, its lowest total in a decade. Two of those are home/home back-to-backs. The other one after Saturday is Jan. 3-4 when the faces the Miami Heat and the Utah Jazz on consecutive nights at the Amway Center.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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