CLEVELAND – The active, assertive and aggressive Mo Bamba who has capably manned the middle of late for the Orlando Magic hardly resembles the 7-footer who recently slumped for a stretch.
What gives? It’s a question that even the highly intelligent and inquisitive Bamba has asked of himself as he’s responded to that lull with some solid shooting, stirring shot-swatting and purposeful play over the past seven games.
With the 21-year-old Bamba, there’s often been a chicken-or-the-egg, Catch-22 dilemma: Does success on the floor breed his confidence? Or is it incumbent on him to play with confidence in order to have success?
``That’s a big part of it,’’ said Bamba, who admitted that his surging confidence of late has fueled his recent inspired play. ``It says a lot about someone when things aren’t going their way and they can keep that same confidence. That’s what I’ve got to keep doing.’’
Bamba should have plenty of reasons to be confident on Friday night when he and the Magic (10-11) head into Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Field House to face the rebuilding Cavaliers (5-15). Not only is the second-year center coming off what Magic head coach Steve Clifford called, ``his best game,’’ he returns to Cleveland just nine nights after torching the Cavs for a career-best-tying 15 points on five-of-five 3-point shooting.
Bamba’s improved play has been one of the reasons that the Magic have won three in a row and four of the last five to move within one victory of a .500 record at the unofficial quarter poll of the season. Standout guard Evan Fournier knows that the Magic need to keep playing well to distance themselves from the squad’s poor first month.
``Obviously, we didn’t start the way that we wanted to, but we are playing better and better now,’’ said Fournier, who has averaged 24.8 points, 3.5 assists and 1.4 steals while shooting 50.9 percent from the floor and 49.3 percent from 3-point range over his last 10 games. ``We have the big guy (Nikola Vucevic) missing still, but we’ve been finding ways to play good basketball. Hopefully, (Vucevic) isn’t going to be out too much longer because we’re going to need him. But, obviously, we’re headed in the right direction. Last year, we started slowly as well and then made a push. This year, we don’t want to have to make a push that late. So, we need to keep getting these wins now.’’
Bamba’s recent big night in Cleveland was one of the many highlights he’d had in a seven-game stretch where he has averaged 8.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots while shooting 54.5 percent from the floor (24 of 44) and an eye-popping 60 percent from 3-point range (nine of 15). That production has come in quite handy for a Magic team that has somehow managed to stay afloat in the seven games without Vucevic, who has been out since Nov. 20 with a right ankle sprain and is likely several days away from returning.
Bamba’s recent success has brought on a confidence level that was missing much of his rookie season and again early in this season when he struggled with the physicality and force needed in the NBA game. The need to play with confidence has been a talking point between Bamba and his teammates as they have looked to pick up his spirits so that he can better tap into his enormous potential.
``I think it’s just a mental thing (with Bamba), to be honest,’’ said Fournier, who knows a thing or two about playing with confidence what with the 10-game run he’s authored of late.
``Mo needs to be more confident, and with that confidence, he will be more aggressive and start making plays,’’ Fournier continued. ``You can gain confidence just by doing little things, like boxing out, being the low man and getting a block. On offense, just shoot the ball when you are open and make the right play. And as you get more and more comfortable, then you can start creating. Mo is playing better and better and I’m happy to see him smile and be happier, for sure.’’
Bamba has certainly been happier getting more playing time of late, and he’s earned those extra minutes by producing while on the floor. For example, on Wednesday he was allowed to play in his first back-to-back set of games of the season (because of an injury precaution) and he followed up Tuesday’s four-point, eight-rebound effort in Washington with an impressive 10-point, 11-rebound, four-block performance in Orlando’s 128-114 whipping of the Suns. Not only did Bamba make all four of his shots and two 3-pointers, but he played with an attacking nature that allowed him to rack up the second double-double of his young career.
Like with his confidence, Bamba has learned that playing with aggression is needed for him to be successful inside.
``It’s all about a mindset and a mentality of knowing that I’ve got to hit first and be in position first,’’ Bamba said following Wednesday’s win. ``It’s just something that I’ve got to keep doing while embracing this challenge.’’
Clifford, who has a spirited pep talk with Bamba back in Indiana two weeks ago, likes how the young big man responded to a poor stretch of play. Clifford has been a staunch proponent of Bamba’s play all season, stressing that the 231-pound center is much further along now than he was last season as a raw and rail-thin rookie.
``With his approach, he’s in a routine and he does a good job with it. And, I’m just going to say it again, he’s made good progress since last year,’’ Clifford said with conviction. ``It’s a tough position, he’s a young guy, and learning how to play that center spot is not easy. It’s physical in there and he’s getting better.’’
One very telling sign of Bamba’s growth was his mental approach going into last week’s game in Cleveland when he buried all five of his 3-point shots. Leading up to that November night, Bamba noticed in his video prep with assistant coach Mike Batiste that Cleveland big men Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. often drop back defensively on pick-and-roll plays, meaning open 3-point shots would be available when he popped to the perimeter. Bamba took advantage of Cleveland – just as he did in three recent Magic wins with Golden State (Kevon Looney), Washington (Thomas Bryant and Moritz Wagner) and Phoenix (Deandre Ayton and Aron Baynes) missing primary big men because of injuries.
That sort of active and aggressive play has him feeling much more confident, but he continues to stress that it’s just the start of some special production he will eventually be able to deliver on a regular basis. For now, Bamba is happy with how he responded with his best basketball of the season. If he continues to play with confidence and play with physicality, he’ll continue to enjoy success, he said.
``I’d like to think that I spoke that into existence, but like I mentioned with more physicality, it’s all about mindset and mentality with me,’’ he said of his improved play of late. ``I feel OK about (him improved play). I know this is definitely better, but there’s definitely a lot more things that I can do out there both offensively and defensively.’’
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