Birch Takes Pride in Being Ready Whenever His Number is Called
ORLANDO – Orlando Magic reserve Khem Birch knows the reality of his situation and he is well aware that in a matter of time he will almost assuredly return to his role as the team’s third-string center behind standout Nikola Vucevic and prized rookie Mo Bamba.
But Birch, now 26 and the married father of a newborn baby girl, says he is better equipped to handle being in a position where he might only play occasionally than earlier in his career. The 6-foot-9, 233-pound center was one of the heroes in Orlando’s 105-103 defeat of Boston on Saturday when he scored four points, grabbed 10 rebounds and swatted four shots in the place of Bamba (sore left foot).
Birch, a Canadian who attended high school in America and was a McDonald’s All-American, also has the benefit of some perspective provided by an experience early in his basketball career.
``I take a lot of pride in this,’’ Birch said of keeping himself ready to contribute when called upon. ``Also, I feel like it’s karma from when I was 19 years old transferring from (the University of) Pitt midway through the season and that’s some sort of karma right there (not playing full-time with the Magic). I’m just trying to stay ready when my number is called and do the best that I can do.
``I transferred first semester to UNLV, and I had to sit out until the second semester of the next year and that was probably one of the most immature moves ever,’’ Birch added. ``From now on, when something like that happens, I’m going to stay ready regardless of what happens.’’
Birch came into Sunday’s game against Houston having played just 8.3 minutes over 18 games – mostly in mop-up duty. The Magic are hopeful that Bamba, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, will be able to return by Wednesday after an MRI showed no structural damage in his left foot. That means Birch, who made it to the NBA after stints in the G League, Turkey and Greece, will most likely slide back into his break-glass-if-necessary role as the team’s third-string center.
``I told (head coach Steve Clifford) that I understand reality,’’ Birch said. ``Mo’s going to play and Vooch is going to play and those guys are so talented. I feel like in life, you’ve got to understand the reality of situations. Like I said, I think learning from (transferring) from Pitt has helped me with coping. I’m always going to stay ready.’’
AUSTIN (ORLANDO) CITY LIMITS: When point guard Austin Rivers was traded by Washington to Phoenix on Dec. 17 and later released by the Suns, the Orlando native admitted that he felt the tug of potentially playing for the Magic, the franchise he grew up rooting for while his father, Doc, was the coach of from 1999-2003.
The Magic have been in search of a point guard to backup starter D.J. Augustin for most of the season, experimenting with Jerian Grant, Jonathon Simmons and Isaiah Briscoe. While it might have seemed that Rivers would have been a perfect fit, he said the lure of playing for the championship-contending Rockets commanded his attention.
``It’s been amazing (with the Rockets) – maybe even a lot better than I thought it would be,’’ said Rivers, who came into Sunday averaging 12.2 points and 3.1 assists in nine games and six starts for a Houston team playing without Chris Paul (hamstring strain), Eric Gordon (knee bruise) and Brandon Knight (sore knee). ``I knew I could fit in here, but I didn’t think it was going to be like this. It hasn’t even been a transition. It’s as if I’ve been playing here for years, that’s what it feels like.’’
Rivers, 26, said his representation had brief talks with the Magic about playing for them, but it was the draw of potentially playing for a championship that landed him in Houston.
``I think so, I think a little bit, but I just saw the way Houston played,’’ Rivers said, referring to the interest from Orlando. ``(They Rockets) emphasize threes, layups and getting to the basket, which is what I like to do and they needed a defender. I was just like, `the thing they needed and what I do well (fit his game).’ And this is a team that is close and is a Finals’ caliber team.’’
Rivers, who will be a free agent in July, said he’s dreamed of playing for the Magic since his days of growing up in Orlando and starring at Winter Park High School. He had approximately 15 family and friends at Sunday’s game at Orlando’s Amway Center, led, of course, by his mother, Kris, who still lives in suburban Orlando.
``I’ve always had a dream, as kid, of playing for the hometown team,’’ Rivers said. ``Any kid who says they don’t want to play for their hometown team is lying.
``I’ll never claim I’m from L.A. or that’s my home; my home is always going to be Orlando. It’s my favorite place in the world,’’ Rivers said. ``That will never change.’’
BAMBA RECOVERING: Clifford said that Bamba is making progress from the sore left foot that knocked him out of the past two games, and the team is confident that he is still on track to make his return to action on Wednesday.
The 7-footer felt soreness in his left foot following last Monday’s loss in Sacramento and was held out of the Magic’s final game of their road trip in Utah. After tests revealed no structural damage in his foot, Bamba was allowed to resume some non-weight-bearing conditioning drills so that he is ready to play later in the week.
``I think that he’s feeling better and he’s been very diligent,’’ Clifford said of Bamba’s rehabilitation of his injury. ``He’s doing a ton of stuff – conditioning and in the pool and all that stuff that they do. The big thing is when it’s (an injury to) the feet and there’s pain there, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to rush him back in Game 43.’’
For the season, Bamba has averaged 6.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and a team-best 1.38 blocked shots in 16.6 minutes a game. He scored a career-best 15 points in his hometown of New York on Nov. 11 and he grabbed 12 rebounds at Charlotte on Dec. 31 at Charlotte. He’s blocked a shot in 30 of the 39 games he’s played in and has had two or more blocks 16 times.
UP NEXT: After playing a difficult back-to-back set of games against Boston and Houston, the Magic are scheduled to be off on Monday.
Orlando will be back on the practice court on Tuesday prior to flying to Detroit to face the Pistons on Wednesday night. Orlando and Detroit have split the season series, 1-1 so far and Wednesday’s game could go a long way toward determining the tiebreaker between two teams expected to battle for a playoff spot all season.
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