Magic Need Mo Bamba to Continue Playing With High Energy and Toughness

ORLANDO – Opportunities for extended minutes haven’t exactly been plentiful for second-year Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba – partly because he is stuck behind the team’s best player in Nikola Vucevic, and partly because he hasn’t always played well enough to earn longer looks.

On Wednesday night in Atlanta, the Magic were left with no choice but to turn to Bamba early in the game when Vucevic picked up two early fouls. This time around, however, the 21-year-old center with the towering 7-foot, 10-inch wingspan proved himself ready and deserving of the lengthy run he got in the guts of an important game for Orlando.

After getting off to the kind of poor start that might have shattered his confidence in the past – his first two shots of the game were blocked by Hawks’ point guards Trae Young and Jeff Teague – Bamba responded with the best extended stretch of his young NBA career.

Over the first seven minutes of Wednesday’s second quarter, Bamba gave the Magic 13 points, five rebounds, three 3-pointers and four free throw makes. Bamba was so effective on both ends of the floor that he helped the Magic go from down six points at the start the second quarter (29-23) to five ahead (48-43) when he was replaced by a rested Vucevic. That Bamba-fueled run ultimately paved the way for Orlando to defeat Atlanta 130-120 for its fourth victory in the past five games.

``I’m just trying to do everything that I could to gain some extra minutes. Some of it is out of my control, but I was ready for the call and just went out there and played,’’ said Bamba, whose biggest momentum-swinging block of the night came when he stuffed Atlanta’s John Collins at the rim. ``(Blocking shots) are big. It’s just about gaining that camaraderie with my teammates that they know I will be back there protecting the rim for them.’’

Orlando (26-32) pulled within a half-game of Brooklyn (26-31) for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference standings by stringing back-to-back wins over a three-day period. It’s no coincidence that the Magic’s best basketball of the season has started to come as their starters and reserves have found ways to play well simultaneously.

Bamba, the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, has been at the heart of that improved play of late. In Monday’s stirring, come-from-behind 115-113 defeat of Brooklyn, Bamba tied a career high with five blocked shots while also adding five points and four rebounds off the bench. On Wednesday, Bamba equaled his career best in points with 15, while also grabbing 10 rebounds to notch the third double-double of his young career.

Finding success, he admitted, helps him tremendously in his mission to become a dependable rotation player worthy of more minutes, Bamba said.

``It helps a lot, but I know there are lots of ups and downs in this league, especially with all of these great players,’’ said Bamba, whose Magic will face the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday at the Amway Center (tip time: 7 p.m., TV: Fox Sports Florida).

``I’ve just got to keep going,’’ Bamba added. ``My mentality is that all of the answers are in the work. You give yourself a shot when you work. When you work on your craft, you give yourself a shot to be out there and help your teammates.’’

Bamba’s two impressive performances came just days after he had a sit-down meeting with head coach Steve Clifford in his Orlando office on Saturday. Bamba, who missed a game before the break for the NBA All-Star Game with the flu, struggled badly in pick-and-roll coverages last Friday in an Orlando loss to Dallas. His passive play in those pick-and-roll situations was a huge factor in Mavericks’ reserve forward/center Maxi Kleber pouring in a career-best 26 points.

Bamba responded well to that low moment, showing that Clifford that he deserves the minutes that he gets behind Vucevic as the Magic’s backup center. In Clifford’s old-school, no-nonsense way of thinking, players get minutes because they earn them and not because they are simply gifted to them. Clifford stressed that for the Magic to stay at their peak, reserves such as Terrence Ross, D.J. Augustin, Michael Carter-Williams and Bamba must continue to play well.

``That’s what it’s got to be. That’s what the NBA is – you’ve got to have everybody playing well and our guys know that,’’ Clifford said. ``We’ve had a couple of good games now, and that’s how it’s got to be.

``That’s why (the reserves) are here,’’ Clifford continued. ``(Washington Wizards coach) Scott Brooks had the great quote the other night: `The NBA should be this – if you play well, you get to play more and when you don’t, don’t look for minutes.’ That’s the way the best players look at it and that’s the way we should look at it.’’

Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who has played his best basketball of the season over the last 11 games and poured in another 25 points on Wednesday, beamed about the performance that Bamba delivered in Atlanta to rescue the Magic. Gordon said one of his favorite moments of the game came when Bamba fearlessly met Atlanta’s Collins high above the rim and turned his dunk attempt with a thunderous block.

``Mo was huge, and he was playing great,’’ Gordon gushed. ``When he’s playing consistent like that, it makes the whole team better. When he’s knocking down threes, being a beast in the paint and beating people’s shots up like he was (on Wednesday), we become a different team.’’

Bamba, who has averaged 5.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and a team-best 1.5 blocks in 14.9 minutes a game this season, said he wants nothing more than for the Magic to know that they can count on him when he’s spelling Vucevic. Clifford has been encouraging Bamba, and the Magic’s entire second unit, and the 7-foot, 231-pound big man has taken the coach’s words to heart.

``Coach (Clifford) mentioned that we’re all starting to play better and I’m just looking to capitalize off of this,’’ Bamba said. ``It’s all about how we’ve come together. Coach (Clifford) mentioned it in the locker room, `Play for each other. Play for each other when we’re down eight (points) and play for each other when we’re up eight (points).’ We’ve done a great job of doing that these past two (games). We’ve got to keep doing that the rest of the season and into the postseason.’’

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