The Orlando Magic finally got to see Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac together on the floor for an extended period of time. It proved promising.
The glimpses of potential in the Orlando Magic have happened in flashes throughout this season. A season that has quickly gone off the rails and been lost wandering the depths of the Lottery for some time.
It has felt the Magic have not had a ton of hope or reason to believe in their future. Or even a reason to get excited about an offseason of growth and development.
Not with a revolving door of injuries that has featured key players. Orlando has rarely been at full strength this year. Even if the team were competitive, it has never allowed the team to put its future in focus.
It took 70-plus games and to nearly the very end of the season, but Orlando finally got a good glimpse at its future. Pairing Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac was a long time coming. It was a group everyone was looking forward to seeing take the court.
As the season lost meaning, this group increasingly was the only thing that had meaning.
And yet, because of Isaac’s long-standing ankle injury followed by Gordon’s journey through the concussion protocol, the duo had not even played 70 total minutes together.
That changed in Tuesday’s loss to the Toronto Raptors. Gordon and Isaac started together for the first time. And the group showed exactly the kind of defensive tenacity and energy they can bring to the floor together.
A hopeful glimpse of the team’s future.
"“The defense is what I expected it to be,” coach Frank Vogel said following Tuesday’s game. “It’s going to be really good with those two out there together in any way, shape or form with whoever else is out there. You just got a lot of athleticism and defensive ability and that was evident from the start of the game.“Offensively, it looked pretty good too. It’s going to be a little bit of a work in progress with those two guys learning to play with each other. But some positive signs early.”"
The two played 26 minutes together in Tuesday’s game. The Magic posted a 102.9 defensive rating in those minutes and scored only 99.4 points per 100 possessions. Those fourth-quarter minutes where the Magic struggled to score at all certainly played a role in depressing the offensive statistics.
But the defense showed more than a few signs of life, dominating one of the best offenses in the league. And the offense held its own — the fourth quarter excepted.
It was not only that the two players were solid individually. Gordon scored 16 points on 7-for-15 shooting in his first game back from the concussion protocol after five games. Isaac scored 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting, adding five steals and two blocks.
The amount of length, speed and athleticism on the floor seemingly caught the Raptors off guard. They were unable to penetrate and create much off the dribble.
Isaac’s play defensive especially was noticeable. He challenged shots effectively at the rim and created deflections and steals throughout the game. Vogel already trusts Isaac to play at a high level defensively. And his confidence is only growing with the more experience he gets on the floor.
That was evident as he drained two 3-pointers and scored in double figures for just the second time in his career. His offense still has a long way to go, but his confidence on that end is growing. His game will continue to evolve.
And so will his playing relationship with Gordon. A relationship that has to evolve for the Magic’s future success.
"“I think hopefully that will be something great for years to come,” Isaac said. “Us being versatile, long, we can defend, we can both rebound and hit outside shots. That can put a strain on the defense to figure out which player guards which person. I think it will be a good thing.”"
That versatility is the promise this duo has together.
Gordon entered the league as a rangy defender able to use his athleticism and skill to defend either forward position. That versatility made his development a bit uncertain. The possibilities for him seemed too endless at times. The Magic could not figure out where they wanted to play him.
Ultimately, playing next to another versatile wing like Isaac may be the way to get the most of him.
This is the way the league is trending anyway. Teams want players next to each other that can guard multiple positions and switch freely, locking up defenses and creating defensive advantages.
That is what things looked like at least through the first three quarters against the Raptors on Tuesday. Isaac recorded five steals and two blocks, adding a team-best six deflections according to NBA.com.
The potential is just too great to pass up. And the potential for them to suffocate teams eventually on the perimeter and cut off a path to the basket, while scrambling and recovering off of help, shows a lot of promise.
"“Jon’s intangibles are amazing,” Gordon said. “His ability to get steals and deflect the ball helps a ton, having an elite defender out there. He’s big time. He’s just going to keep getting better and better. But I’m looking for him.“We’ve got to do what other teams do to us. They switch and turn it into one on one. If we can do that to other teams, it will be to our benefit.”"
That is eventually the dream for Gordon and Isaac together. Right now, it will just take time for them to get there. That is seemingly the only thing holding them back.
Unfortunately, another set back might put this dream pairing on hold again.
Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel reports Isaac is doubtful to play in Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers with a left foot strain.
This has been a season of false starts for Isaac. The one thing the Magic want to bank their future on is the one thing they have seen the least of throughout the season.
If Tuesday was any indication, there is a lot to like about how the two can play together. The jury is still out whether it is the foundational piece the Magic need. But it is certainly an intriguing pairing that can already deliver results.
For one night, at least, the Magic saw just what the pair can do. Enough to explore more with what remains this season.