TORONTO – Out since badly injuring his right knee on Nov. 29 and seemingly done for the season following a setback in the rehabilitation process a month ago, Orlando Magic guard Terrence Ross made his return on Sunday night.
Fittingly enough, Ross was back on the floor in Toronto, where he played for the first 4 ½ seasons of his NBA career prior to being traded to the Magic. He said his return couldn’t come soon enough considering the frustration he’s had to battle while missing the past 4 ½ months and 57 games.
``It’s been a long time in coming, but I took my time to get it right and now I feel like I’m ready to go out and play,’’ Ross said prior to tipoff. ``For sure, this is without a doubt, the longest time I’ve spent away (from basketball).’’
Ross opened the season in the starting lineup for the Magic, but he struggled with his shot in those 20 games. Two games after being moved into a reserve role, Ross suffered a MCL sprain and a tibial plateau fracture in his right leg when he collided with Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook on Nov. 29.
Hopeful that he could return by early March, Ross saw that target date pushed back when he bruised that knee while playing three-on-three work during a Magic practice. He did make it back by Sunday’s Game 80 – something that Magic head coach Frank Vogel feels could prove invaluable going forward for the 27-year-old shooting guard.
``I just took it day by day and I just tried to work hard and get as strong as I can to make sure I put myself in a position to come back before the season ended,’’ Ross said. ``I never really lost that faith of coming back, so I’m just proud of all the hard work I put in.’’
Vogel, who coached previously in Indiana prior to taking over in Orlando, said that it proved to be important for superstar forward Paul George to play the six games that he did at the end of the 2014-15 season following his horrific compound leg fracture several months earlier in August of 2014. That return allowed George to gauge where he was in his rehab and it set the stage for the next season when he averaged 23.1 points per game. Vogel feels the return to game action will be therapeutic for Ross in a variety of ways.
``We made sure with the medical team that it’s safe to do this, it’s strong enough and they feel good about it,’’ Vogel said. ``A player returning from an injury like this has to start viewing themselves as a player and not a patient. That’s one of the transitions that you have to make when you have been out such a long time. So, him getting back in some games will be good for him.’’
CANADIAN PRIDE: Magic center Khem Birch cringed on Sunday morning when his mother, Wendy Sparks, told him that she had made up special T-shirts honoring his first NBA game back in his native Canada. But considering her continual support and pride in his NBA career, he decided to go along with it and accept it.
``She already told me that they made matching shirts and stuff and I’m not really a fan of that, but what can you do?’’ joked Birch, a native of Montreal. ``You can’t get mad when people are just trying to support you. Now, I’m going to be embarrassed, but when I look back on it, I will be like, `Wow, I had a lot of people supporting me.’ In the future I know I will (remember) it.’’
Birch, a rugged 6-foot-9, 220-pound shot-blocker, left Canada before his senior year of high school so that he could attend prep school in the U.S. He ultimately became a high school All-American before attending Pitt and UNLV. When we went undrafted out of college, he played in the G League and professionally in Greece and Turkey before signing with the Magic.
After splitting much of the season with the G League’s Lakeland Magic and at the NBA level in Orlando, Birch has impressed Magic coaches with his toughness and tenacity inside. In 39 NBA games, he’s averaged 3.8 points, 3.7 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in 13 minutes a night.
He said he would try and keep his first NBA game back in his home country in perspective, focusing instead on the opportunity to see family members he hasn’t visited with in months. He was expecting to have between 11 and 15 family members at the game.
``It’s the same mentality that I have going into every game, but I’m just excited to see my family,’’ Birch said. ``I love my country, but we’ve played Toronto already and the national anthem is just the national anthem and it’s nothing special.’’
RAPTORS’ RISE: For years, analysts have wondered if Toronto’s window to win big had closed and whether or not the team had already reached its apex. However, the Raptors have proven those analysts wrong this season with an extended stretch of excellent play.
Toronto already owns the most regular-season wins in franchise history (57 coming into Sunday) and its most home victories ever (33). Following Sunday’s home game against the Magic, the Raptors still have road games at Detroit and Miami to try and improve those marks.
Toronto will go into this weekend’s playoffs as the top seed’s the Eastern Conference and with home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference Finals if they keep winning.
``It is a feeling of gratification in the fact of where we started,’’ Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. ``Seven years ago, at the bottom of the conference so to speak, bottom in offense and defense, and the building process. DeMar DeRozan coming from a young skinny kid at USC to where he is now. Kyle Lowry coming in and Jonas (Valanciunas) coming from Lithuania and growing, going through his growing pains.’’
UP NEXT: Orlando will play its final road game of the season on Monday in Milwaukee when it faces the Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Orlando is 1-2 thus far against the Bucks, losing the lone meeting in Milwaukee thus far.
It also will be the Magic’s final back-to-back set of games this season. Orlando went into Sunday’s game in Toronto 12-16 in back-to-backs, going 5-9 on the first night and a respectable 7-7 on the second night.
The Magic close the regular season on Wednesday at the Amway Center when they host the Washington Wizards.
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