Magic Confident in Their Depth As They Prepare for Pacers

Magic will need role players such as Birch, Bamba and Aminu to step up with Vucevic and Gordon out
by John Denton

INDIANAPOLIS – Often winded and dripping with sweat following games that he didn’t even play in, reserve center Khem Birch said he works to keep himself in tip-top shape just for moments like the one that the Orlando Magic are precariously now facing.

Forced to play without all-star center Nikola Vucevic and standout forward Aaron Gordon possibly for an extended period because of ankle injuries, the Magic will now look to the likes of Birch, Mo Bamba, Al-Farouq Aminu and Wes Iwundu to help them adapt and adjust their style of play on the fly. After all, things are bound to change for the Magic (6-8) what with their best all-around offensive player (Vucevic) and their top defender (Gordon) out of action for an indefinite period.

Fortunately for an Orlando squad rocked by injuries to Michael Carter-Williams (hip irritation), Vucevic and Gordon, it had two days to prepare a new plan of attack. Back on the practice court on Friday to prep for Saturday’s game (tip time: 7 p.m.) against the Indiana Pacers (8-6), the Magic feel they have enough weapons on their roster to hold up until they can get one or both of their stars healthy.

``The first place where it’s going to start – and this is what I said to the guys earlier – is recommitting to the defense that we were playing earlier (in the season),’’ said Magic coach Steve Clifford, who is planning to promote defensive-minded players Wes Iwundu and Birch into Saturday’s starting lineup. ``We’ve made good strides on offense, but we haven’t played nearly the defense that we played earlier.

``What I told the guys is if we had to play (the Pacers) in a series starting (on Saturday), it’d be hard. But can we win tomorrow night? A hundred percent (they can),’’ Clifford added. ``If we play well, the way that we’re capable of, and get a couple of guys going, you can go out for one night in this league –because these guys are good enough players – and win.’’

Vucevic and Gordon went down in what would certainly qualify as a devastating 3-minute, 23-second stretch of the second quarter on Wednesday in Toronto – a game the Magic would ultimately lose 113-97 to the Raptors. Gordon came down on the back of a teammate’s leg after soaring for a block, causing his ankle to violently twist. As for Vucevic, he collapsed in a heap when he landed awkwardly on his right ankle and saw it buckle underneath him.

MRIs on Thursday in Indianapolis revealed better news for Gordon than Vucevic. Gordon, a six-year veteran with the Magic, has a right ankle contusion and his return will be based on how he responds to treatment. As for the 7-foot Vucevic – the longest-tenured player on the team – he suffered a lateral sprain to his right ankle and will be reevaluated by the team for progress in seven to 10 days.

``It just means everybody has to elevate their game, step up and make up for the guys who are down,’’ said Magic guard Terrence Ross, the hero in Orlando’s three come-from-behind wins over the Pacers last season – two of which came in Indiana. ``This can define your character, help you build as a team and bring us together. That’s how we have to approach it.’’

The Magic will be without Vucevic and Gordon on Saturday when they face an Indiana team that they lost to 109-102 back on Nov. 10 in Orlando. Their status will also be in question during the final two games of the four-day, nine-night road trip that also features stops in Detroit (Monday) and Cleveland (Wednesday).

Indiana, which hasn’t played since Monday, isn’t without injury concerns of its own. Standout point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who leads the Pacers in scoring at 19.2 points per game, is listed as doubtful to play because of back spasms. T.J. McConnell (groin strain) and Jeremy Lamb (ankle sprain) are listed as questionable, but both reportedly said they plan to play on Saturday against the Magic.

Undoubtedly, Orlando needs to make changes in how it will attack foes without Vucevic (17.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.1 blocks a game) and Gordon (13.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists a game).
That’s where players like the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Birch come in, and potentially can come to the rescue for the Magic. Last season, Birch showed himself ready to contribute when Bamba went down with a season-ending stress fracture in his left leg and he eventually became one of the driving forces on an Orlando squad that won 42 games and reached the playoffs.

Orlando resigned Birch in free agency in July just for moments like now when the team is down a big man and in need of a jolt of athleticism and physicality. Birch, who often does sprint work and abdominal exercises following games that he doesn’t even play in, proved himself ready on Wednesday in Toronto by scoring 12 points and grabbing four rebounds in 21 minutes of action against the Raptors.

``If no one gets hurt, I’m not going to play, so I know the reality and right now I’m not looking at that and I’m just trying to help my team win,’’ said Birch, who has averaged 3.2 points and 2.6 rebounds in 13.2 minutes of the five games he’s appeared in so far. ``I’ve been here (with the Magic) for three years and Orlando is like home to me and they gave me an opportunity and a contract, so I want to pay them back by coming in ready.’’

Clifford plans to start Iwundu (2.5 points per game in 9.8 minutes on average) and Birch so as to not disrupt the Magic’s second unit. Doing that allows Aminu (4.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in 21.6 minutes on average) and Bamba (3.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 13.4 minutes) to stay in their same roles off the bench.

Bamba, the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, is looking at the moment as an opportunity after mostly struggling to find his footing in parts of his first two seasons. The 7-footer worked throughout the summer to grow his game and his body and bulked up to 231 pounds. However, bouts of indecision have limited his effectiveness and he is hoping to play with more force and assertion on Saturday against Indiana center Myles Turner, a close friend of his from their brief time together at the University of Texas.

``I put a lot of this on myself when you have a guy like Vooch who goes out and is a team leader, you have to reflect to yourself and think, `What can I do to help this team?’’ Bamba said. ``It’s pretty hard to say I’m happy with the last couple of games that I’ve played out there, but I try to not let things carry over and not let things bleed into the next day. After talking to Coach (Clifford) and hearing from some of my teammates, the biggest thing for me is to move forward.

``A lot of it is just being aggressive,’’ added Bamba, whose indecisiveness in high pick-and-roll sets hindered him on Wednesday in Toronto. ``It’s just about being decisive and making up my mind that I’m going to get to this (coverage or blocked shot) and not stopping.’’

Aminu, a 10-year NBA veteran who was signed as much for his high character and leadership as he was his versatility on the court, said young Magic players such as Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac, Birch, Bamba and Iwundu must focus on the opportunities before them now instead of the injuries that have crippled the Magic. That’s a message that he’s tried to pass along to younger players who will be asked to carry more of the load until Vucevic and Gordon can get back healthy.

``When this does happen, it’s opportunity and you need to make the most out of it,’’ Aminu said. ``It’s not like you’ve got to go out there and score 50 points and nobody’s looking to do that. … This is what this league is … stuff changes in a day and two days ago these guys probably weren’t thinking about this. But now they’ve got to rise to the occasion.

``Given the minutes, a guy like Wes (Iwundu) is going to be able to show out and show what he can do,’’ Aminu added. ``Markelle is going to be able to flourish a little more as another young guy who can do a lot of different things out there, too. I’m excited to see a lot of these guys step up their play.’’

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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