Over the course of an 82 game season, an NBA team is going to have a few games where the players you least expect, make the biggest impact.
For the Orlando Magic, one of those games came on Saturday night against the Boston Celtics. The players who made their impact felt on the game, Khem Birch and Isaiah Briscoe, have rarely seen the court this season, picking up minutes mostly in mop up roles, or late in blowout losses.
Against the Celtics, the two young guys made their impact felt almost from the moment they stepped on the floor.
Desperately needing a spark, coach Steve Clifford turned to a bench unit of Briscoe, Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Birch, who had played a combined 12 minutes together coming into the night. While Gordon got them going with a, 11-0 run, it was Birch and Briscoe that kept the energy up.
From a thunderous put-back slam from Birch, to a half-court skip pass from Briscoe to Fournier for a three, the impact was felt all over the court. The run at the end of the first quarter, and first portion of the second quarter gave the Magic new life, and got them back into a game they saw slowly slipping away.
“82 games, you need them all [15 players],” said coach Steve Clifford when asked about the importance of Birch and Briscoe’s impact on the game, considering their overall lack of playing time. “Being able to play well consistently, you’re not going to be able to do with seven or eight guys. You’ve gotta have a bunch of guys, and when their time comes, they have to be able to step up and play well. It’s part of being a professional player.”
Staying ready can sometimes be hard for players, especially young ones, when they aren’t getting much playing time. For a first and a second-year player to both be ready like that, and make the profound impact they did, it’s impressive.
Their impact was felt more into the second half as well, with the pair continuing to make big plays to keep the energy up in the waining minutes.
While he went scoreless on the night, Briscoe made multiple big plays in the second half. From stepping in to take a charge on a driving Al Horford, to diving on the floor for a loose ball, to finding an open Jonathan Isaac for an easy bucket, the rookies impact was immense, leading him to finish with the second highest +/- (+20) on the night, trailing just Birch’s +24.
“He’s a plus 20 when he was out there, and I think he organized us [well],” said Clifford when asked about the little plays that Briscoe made. “Their ball pressure and passing lane pressure and he handled that well. He’s big enough, quick enough, and confident enough defensively so he can guard primary scorers. I thought he did a good job on [Terry] Rozier and even the possessions when he had to defense Kyrie [Irving] he did a good job.”
While Briscoe will likely continue to see minutes in the short, and intermediate terms, Birch’s chance to make an impact could come to an end shortly. With Mo Bamba already ruled out for Sunday night’s game against the Houston Rockets, Birch will get the chance to show his worth once again. After that, however, it gets murkier with Clifford saying his rookie center will play once he returns from a sore foot.
Down the road aside, Saturday night will be a night both Birch and Briscoe can look back on and see the impact they made.
Their performances didn’t go unnoticed by their teammates either.
“They definitely stepped up in a big way,” said Terrence Ross when asked about his fellow bench mates. “Super professional. They came out, did what they needed to do, and provided sparks. Isaiah was diving on the floor. Khem was getting rebounds and tip dunks, all the stuff that we need on the court. It was good.”
Nikola Vucevic, who struggled with the physicality of Al Horford, and the Celtics overall defensive schemes for much of the night, echoed what his coach had to say, saying it’s important to get that kind of play over the course of a long season.
“It’s very important. It’s a long season. You’re going to have injuries, gonna have guys miss games, and when you have some things that don’t work, coach changes the rotation. You have guys come in and give you a boost it’s a huge advantage. They came in, they were ready. We need everyone. It’s a very long season. We can’t play six or seven guys every game.”
Saturday night once again showed the importance of having guys who can make an impact deep on the bench, as well as the importance of always staying ready.
Despite only combining for four points, their impact was felt much deeper, and it ultimately helped lead to the Magic’s improbable come back victory against the Celtics.