When the Orlando Magic signed Al-Farouq Aminu this past summer using their mid-level exception, nights like this past Friday were exactly what the team’s upper-management was likely envisioning.
With Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon already entrenched as starters at the forward positions (and injured forward Chuma Okeke waiting in the wings next season), and the roster in desperate need for more shooting/scoring, it was a somewhat surprising move to ink the “Chief (Aminu)” as quickly as the Magic did in the NBA’s free agency period.
But you can never have enough depth in the NBA, and that proved true Friday against the San Antonio Spurs when the Magic announced prior to the game that Isaac would be sitting out with an ankle issue. Isaac tweaked his ankle Thursday night at a team event where the Magic unveiled their new “City Edition” uniforms. It’s unclear whether Isaac will be able to play Sunday against the Wizards.
“Injuries happen, it’s unfortunate,” Coach Steve Clifford said of Isaac before Friday night’s game. “And that’s why we have good depth, and hopefully we’ll be able to play well.”
In Isaac’s absence, Clifford tabbed Aminu to start opposite Gordon against the Spurs. The veteran forward started every game for the Portland Trailblazers last season, but he had been coming off the bench for the Magic this season. The ninth-year forward played less than two minutes against the Philadelphia 76ers Wednesday night, but he was “the next man up” for Orlando Friday.
The Magic were able to defeat the Spurs in what amounted in Coach Clifford’s words as “probably the best win (they’ve) had so far”. Orlando’s offense exploded in the second half, led by Evan Fournier (17 of his 26 points came in the second half) and Terrence Ross (10 of his 20 points came in the fourth quarter).
Orlando was in a position to take the lead in the second half mostly due to Aminu’s efforts through the first two quarters. He was everywhere - on the glass, diving for loose balls, deflecting passes.
That’s the NBA for you; you’re on your way out of the rotation one night, and then you’re keeping your team in a game the next night.
“Chief was amazing, he played great,” Ross said after the game. “He had almost a double-double by the half. He had a lot of hustle plays, defensive plays, stops. Without those rebounds in the first half, it would have been tough to go on a run. He was a big spark-plug for us.”
Aminu was indeed a spark-plug for the Magic, posting 8 points to go along with 8 rebounds in the first half (he finished with 13 point and 13 rebounds in 30 minutes).
“He was really good, he was aggressive on the boards,” Fournier told reporters in the locker room. “I thought he stepped-up really well, I’m happy for him. That’s what a good team does, when you have a guy down (Isaac) - next one steps it up (and playing well).”
“Chief stepped up man, it’s next man up,” Gordon added after the game when asked about the adjustments Orlando had to make playing without Isaac. “I thought he (Aminu) had an incredible game. He impacted the game all over the floor - deflections, rebounds, scoring the ball. It’s next man up, that’s how we play - that’s how this team is.”
Aminu’s fingerprints were all over an important 22-10 run the Magic posted coming out of halftime against San Antonio. Aminu scored 5 points and grabbed 4 rebounds (2 offensive) through the first seven minutes of the third quarter. His steal off a bad pass by DeMar DeRozan led to a Fournier three that gave Orlando a lead (and resulted in a Spurs timeout).
“Terrific,” Clifford responded when asked during his post-game conference about the lift Aminu provided his team. “Look, (Al-Farouq) is a very good player, and I told him this the other day. I think for the way we play and my vision of what a good player is, he’s a good player.
Through 12 games with the Magic, Aminu is averaging just 4.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, but his presence Friday was felt significantly more than his season numbers would indicate.
“I’ve got to figure out how to play with certain lineups on the floor, and that’s where we were struggling,” Clifford added. “It’s not a question of ‘is he (Aminu) a good player?’ - It’s just me piecing the lineups together. And you can see his value. This is the second game where he was one of the two or three most important players in a home win.”
In Aminu, the Magic have a guy who has started over 400 career NBA games. He’s also come off the bench over 250 times. He’s played for five different organizations and his team has made the postseason five times in nine seasons (35 of 40 playoff games played with the Trailblazers).
He’s seen it all in the NBA, and you can be assured that if the Magic need Aminu to step in again and shoulder more of the load for his team, the “Chief” will be ready.