Birch Delivers Solid Effort With Bamba, Isaac Sitting Out

by John Denton

LAS VEGAS – With lower back stiffness continuing to bother him, Orlando Magic center Khem Birch figured that he would not play much, if at all, on Thursday night in the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League.

But when Birch learned that teammates Jonathan Isaac, Mohamed Bamba, Isaiah Briscoe, Byron Mullins and Antonio Campbell would miss the game for a variety of injury concerns, Birch brushed his pain aside and took one for the team. That willingness to sacrifice for the good of others is one of many reasons that the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Birch has become a team favorite on the Magic and should continue to have a firm place on the regular-season roster next season.

Birch scored 10 points, grabbed four rebounds, snatched two steals and swatted a shot in 21 minutes, but it wasn’t enough for Orlando to completely overtake the Utah Jazz in a 75-70 summer league loss at UNLV’s Cox Pavilion.

``I’ve just tried to show that I’m a competitor,’’ said Birch, who was back on the UNLV campus where he starred as a college player from 2012-14. ``I’ve been playing hurt. I could have set out, but I can’t just take the night off. And when I heard that Mo and J.I. were out, I knew that I had to play.’’

The Magic (2-2) will wrap up play in the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League on Friday when they face the Oklahoma City Thunder at 8:30 p.m. ET. Teams came into summer league play knowing that they would play at least five games and could have potentially played eight games if making the championship game on Tuesday.

Citing ``general soreness,’’ the Magic withheld Isaac and Bamba from Thursday night’s game. Both talented, young prospects participated in the five practices from July 3-5, played in the first three games and worked out in two other practice sessions over the course of a taxing nine-day stretch.

In three games, Isaac was able to show off some of the added muscle and growth in his game that he’s worked to build this offseason. He averaged 14.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 1.3 steals while shooting 35 percent from the floor. His finest performance came on Sunday when he totally frustrated hotshot Memphis rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. with his long-armed defense.

Bamba, the No. 6 pick in last month’s NBA Draft, played well in his professional debut while swatting shots and stroking 3-point shots. Despite playing just 19.7 minutes a night, he averaged 8.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots in three games. He struggled a bit against top overall pick, DeAndre Ayton, but he acquitted himself well by swatting five shots and converting a nifty post-up shot over forward Josh Jackson.

``I thought both of them really competed (against Ayton),’’ Magic assistant coach Pat Delany said. ``(Bamba and Isaac) did what we asked of them – screening and rolling and helping us get to the next layer of our offense.’’

Playing without Isaac and Bamba, the Magic struggled to find enough offense much of the night. Orlando shot just 33.3 percent from the floor and connected on only four of 28 3-point shots. Utah, which played without Grayson Allen and Tony Bradley, wasn’t much better at 35.1 percent shooting and six-of-23 accuracy from 3-point range.

Troy Caupain, who signed a two-way deal on Wednesday that means he will split time next season between Orlando and the G League’s Lakeland Magic, scored 14 points, grabbed eight rebounds, handed out five assists and buried two 3-pointers. His 26-footer with 2:29 to play got Orlando within 68-64, but Utah responded with a Georges Niang (12 points) 3-pointer to seal the game.

Wes Iwundu, a 2017 second-round pick, scored 11 points despite making just five of 13 shots. Melvin Frazier Jr., the 35thpick of last month’s NBA Draft, scored seven points on three-of-11 shooting.

Birch played in 42 NBA games as a rookie last season for the Magic, showing plenty of promise with his willingness to show physicality inside. He averaged 4.2 points and 4.3 rebounds in limited minutes and proved himself to be one of Orlando’s best shot-blockers.

Birch, a native of Montreal, Quebec, said his back has bothered him since Orlando’s season ended in mid-April and the stiffness lingered while working with the Canadian National Team.

``It’s been happening and lingering for a long time now,’’ Birch said. ``After the season, and then when I went to Team Canada and then coming here, and I’ve just got to take a few days off just because I need a lot of rest. It’s just soreness that needs rest.’’

Orlando started strong behind the play of Iwundu and Birch and led 11-5 before its offense bottomed out once again. The Magic went the next six minutes without a point and things didn’t get much better in the second quarter when they scored just 10 points. That left Orlando in a 41-29 home at halftime.

Clearly missing the energy and activity of Bamba and Isaac, Orlando shot just 28.9 percent in the opening half and connected on just one of 12 3-point shots.

Birch, who missed the previous game with back stiffness, had his way inside early in the game. He and Caupain ran a pick-and-roll play to perfection early on and it resulted in a thunderous dunk for the 6-foot-9 big man.

Frazier Jr. had an electrifying play in the second quarter when he tipped away a pass and converted a double-clutch, tomahawk dunk.

``With (Isaac and Bamba) out, that just gives other guys opportunities,’’ Frazier Jr. said. ``They just me to be ready and whoever’s number was called to be ready. … I mean, I think I’ve done a really good job defensively. I talked, get everybody into it and tried my hardest on defense. I’ve just got to pick up on the offensive side.’’

Seconds later, reserve center Tyler Rawson faked a wrap-around pass, causing Utah center Diamond Stone (14 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks) to run and look away. When that happened, Rawson flipped in an uncontested hook shot.

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