ORLANDO – Forced to try and do the unthinkable and replace the do-everything talents of injured forward Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford’s brainstorming thoughts took him back to his team’s surge to the playoffs last spring.
Two of the unsung heroes of last spring’s 22-9 closing kick that got the Magic into the postseason were center Khem Birch and small forward Wes Iwundu, reserves who proved themselves ready when they were presented with playing-time opportunities. Clifford had plenty of confidence that both could do the same this season when pressed into duty now because of a left knee injury that is expected to keep Isaac out for multiple months.
``I trust (Iwundu) and I trust Khem and I think they’ll both play very well,’’ Clifford said. ``Look, you can say whatever you want, but there are a lot of guys in this league who put up numbers – coaches talk about this all the time – and (those players) never play on good teams. We weren’t a great team last year, but we were a good team and Wes and Khem were every-night players on a team that won 42 games. You learn something (about players) when you go through something like that.’’
The Magic (16-20) learned more about Iwundu and Birch over the past two games when they were used as starters in place of Isaac. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound Birch freed up Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier time and again with his bone-jarring screens and he played well defensively against Bam Adebayo in Orlando’s defeat of Miami on Friday. On Saturday against Utah, Iwundu not only started, but he frustrated long-time Magic killer Bojan Bogdanovic all night in a game Orlando was in position to win before fading in the fourth quarter.
Going forward, Clifford plans to alternate Iwundu and Birch as starters based on matchups with opponents and what the Magic need from game-to-game. With the struggling and injury-affected Brooklyn Nets (16-18) dead ahead for the Magic on Monday at the Amway Center, Clifford will likely opt for Iwundu as the starter against smallish forwards Joe Harris and Tauren Prince, while Birch’s minutes off the bench could mirror those of burly forward Wilson Chandler.
``There’s just an aspect to the team now where a lot of players are going to have to step up, especially with our energy because of the grit and grind that (Isaac) would bring to our team,’’ said Iwundu, who had nine points, four rebounds and a blocked shot in Orlando’s 109-96 loss to Utah on Saturday. ``Nothing changes and at the end of the day the goal is to win and go as far as we can (in the playoffs). With (Isaac) being out, it makes it a little tougher, but we’re all professionals and it’s on us to step up to the plate.’’
That’s what happened late last season when Birch and Iwundu worked their way into the Magic’s regular rotation and helped the team play its best basketball over a six-week stretch. Once 20-31 last season, Orlando won 22 of the last 31 games to earn the East’s No. 7 playoff seed.
When Mo Bamba suffered a season-ending stress fracture in his shin last spring, Birch stepped in as the reserve center behind starter Nikola Vucevic and gave the Magic a physical presence and rim protection that it was missing. In 23 games after the break for the NBA All-Star Game, Birch averaged 6.3 points and 4.5 rebounds while shooting 61.1 percent from the floor in 15.2 minutes a night.
``Khem Birch is such a good player,’’ Clifford said of the center/power forward, who is averaging 4.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 21.5 minutes per game this season. ``All our players want to play with him. He’s such a good screener and he knows what’s going on. … He makes us big in there and physical.’’
As for Iwundu, he went from a 19.6 percent 3-point shooter as a rookie to one who made 36.7 percent of his 3-point shots last season. And defensively, he was even better. Among players to contest at least 400 shots last season, Iwundu ranked first on the Magic and fifth overall in the NBA in individual field goal percentage allowed at 40.5 percent. That put him in the same company as Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo (40.1 percent allowed) and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam (39.7 percent allowed).
On Saturday night, Orlando assigned him to the 6-foot-9 Bogdanovic, who hung 30 points and six 3-pointers on the Magic in Utah on Dec. 17 and came in averaging more points in his career against the Magic (19.4 points in 16 games) than any other team in the NBA.
On Saturday, Iwundu hounded Bogdanovic to the point that he made just four 13 shots and only two of six 3-point shots. In 30 minutes against Iwundu, Bogdanvic had just 14 points and three turnovers.
``Just being a professional, you have to expect the unexpected in the NBA and here we are now standing here without (Isaac),’’ Iwundu said of being pressed into duty of late because of injuries. ``It’s a different look that we offer, but we have a lot of guys who can fill the hole left by (Isaac) and what he brought to the team.’’
In his 32 games this season, the nearly 7-foot Isaac brought career highs in points (12.0), rebounding (6.9) and assists (1.4) and ranked fourth in the NBA in blocked shots (2.4) and 12thin steals (1.6). Isaac and Detroit center Andre Drummond are the only players in the NBA to rank in the top 15 in both categories this season.
With Isaac out a minimum of two months and possibly the rest of the season because of a posterior lateral corner injury and a medial bone contusion to his left knee, Iwundu and Birch will get an extended stretch to play consistent minutes nightly. Clifford said history suggests to him that Iwundu will thrive in that situation.
``I think Wes will play better and better. He’s going to be like most guys where it’s going to be hard to play six minutes here, not play two games and then play 12 minutes. It’s hard because you’re never in rhythm,’’ Clifford said of Iwundu, who is averaging 3.7 points and 2.5 rebounds in 16 minutes a night this season. ``Last year, when he got time to play every night for an extended period of time, he played better and better. People forget that the guy shot 37 (percent) from 3 (point range) last year. And he’s a lot better shooter now than he was last year.’’
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