Khem Birch's Hustle and Energy Helping Magic

By John Denton
Jan. 22, 2018

ORLANDO – Informed on Sunday afternoon that the Orlando Magic had just won in Boston for the first time since 2011, reserve center Khem Birch did some quick math in his head and thought back to a time when his NBA dream was just beginning some 55 miles away from TD Garden.

``It’s funny because that makes me feel old,’’ the 25-year-old Birch joked following Orlando’s 103-95 defeat of the Boston Celtics. ``I was in high school like seven years ago and I never knew that statistic and I’m happy we got the (win).

``I went to high school here (in the Boston area), and I used to come and see the TD Garden and now I’m playing in it,’’ he added. ``It’s a humbling experience and I’m making the most of it.’’

Is Birch ever making the most of it? Orlando’s first victory in Boston in 15 tries likely didn’t happen without the play of the unheralded, under-the-radar center who has helped send a charge through the team with his infectious energy and fearlessness. The Magic gave back much of the 19-point lead that they took into the fourth quarter, but Birch was there down the stretch to deliver two momentum-turning, tip-in baskets, grab six rebounds and block two shots – the final one being a swat of a Kyrie Irving floater after the Celtics had pulled to within 93-84.

Birch’s play helped the Magic (14-32) notch their second win against a playoff-bound team in the last three games and continue a stretch of four consecutive strong performances. If not for a late foul and two free throws in the final seconds of a one-point loss in Cleveland on Thursday, Orlando might have a three-game winning streak heading into Tuesday’s game at the Amway Center against the slumping Sacramento Kings (13-32).

``It feels good, of course, and we’re just looking to continue it (on Tuesday),’’ Magic forward Aaron Gordon said following Monday’s practice. ``We’ll come out and play hard. We’re playing really hard now, and that’s good. Everybody is contributing, everybody is making plays for one another and we’re really playing as a team.’’

The Magic have come together as a team as reserves D.J. Augustin, Shelvin Mack and Birch have taken on bigger roles and have delivered in big ways. Augustin had 18 points and a big 3-pointer in the win against Minnesota on Tuesday, while Mack made all five of his shots on Thursday in Cleveland and he had 10 points, four rebounds and three steals in Boston on Sunday.

As for Birch, his production might go down as the most surprising considering his circuitous path to get to this point. He has been up and down between the Magic and their G League affiliate, the Lakeland Magic, seven times this season before finally getting his first shot at meaningful minutes.

In last Tuesday’s defeat of Minnesota, Birch was downright dominant for stretches in compiling 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. He didn’t play as much against Cleveland’s small-ball lineups (four points, four rebounds and one block in 17 minutes), but he was front and center in Sunday’s fourth quarter as the Magic looked to end a 14-game losing streak in Boston that stretched back to Jan. 17, 2011.

``I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning, but I just kept my head and kept moving forward,’’ Birch said humbly. ``I have great teammates and vets on this team to help me out. When I messed up in the beginning, I concentrated more later in the game and that helped me out in the end.’’

Considering that Birch has spent most of this season in the G League, playing in front of small crowds in sometimes cramped gyms, it had to be shocking to some to see him come through the way he did in Sunday’s fourth quarter as a sellout crowd of 18,624 filled the TD Garden with noise. Birch, an exceptionally good shot-blocker despite being relatively undersized at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, never blinked in the face of the Celtics’ charge and the roaring noise from the crowd.

``He’s remarkably quick off the floor and he does surprise guys (with his shot-blocking abilities),’’ said Magic coach Frank Vogel, who leaned on Birch for 10 minutes of playing time in Sunday’s decisive fourth quarter. ``He continues to prove himself and we’ll continue to use him. He’s like a robot and he’s unfazed by all of that (surrounding noise) and he just goes out and plays. That’s one of the neat things about the young man – he doesn’t get rattled and he just goes out and plays his game with intensity.’’

That Birch was a key part of a Magic win in Boston was fitting considering that he first started to dream about the NBA while going to Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass. His mother, Wendy Sparks, was in the crowd to watch him play on Sunday, and the shy, mild-mannered Birch couldn’t stop smiling after the game. In many ways, starring on the court at TD Garden was the realization of a lifelong dream.

``It’s funny because I just wanted to make it to the NBA and I didn’t even care about playing at first. Now that I’m playing a lot, I just want to thank God, thank the coaches and thank my teammates,’’ said Birch, who was undrafted out of college in 2014 and had to play in the G League, Greece and Turkey before finally sticking in the NBA. ``Going to high school here (in the Boston area), playing here and getting the (win) here against the No. 1 team in the East, it’s a surreal moment. I can always look back someday and tell my kids that I played here (in Boston).’’

Added Vogel: ``The whole thing is a neat story. Him making our team is a neat story. He’s still a quiet kid like he was when we first met him, but he’s very coachable, he listens and he tries to do everything that you tell him to do. He just has a really good attitude.’’

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