Orlando Magic are still a playoff team without Jonathan Isaac

The Orlando Magic suffered a big loss in Jonathan Isaac’s injury. But the team still has the pieces and the opportunity to make the playoffs.

Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac was cheerful and energetic inside the Magic’s locker room following the team’s 122-101 win over the Washington Wizards.

He left the game just a little more than two minutes into it on a stretcher after hyperextending his left knee on a fast break. Jonathan Isaac was on the floor for a long time and the team staff brought a stretcher out as a precaution to get him off the floor. Everyone feared the worst.

But Isaac after the game seemed cheerful and hopeful. He reported he was only a little sore but that he felt good. He left without crutches and without a brace it appeared. He said he could bend the knee and move around fine. As the media closed its session with him, he hoped he would be able to return to the court Friday against the Miami Heat.

That was always a bit optimistic. Especially considering how cautious the Magic have been with their prized young forward. They and everyone else would await the MRI results.

The news from that test was both good and bad.

The good: There was no damage to his ACL, MCL or PCL. The MRI diagnosed him with posterior lateral corner injury and medial bone contusion. President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said all signs point to a complete recovery.

The bad: The team will re-evaluate Isaac again in 8-10 weeks. That would put Isaac’s potential return at Feb. 27 — a span of at minimum 24 games.

Isaac spoke on Twitter promising to be back better and stronger.

All signs point toward a return before the end of the season. This does not appear to be the last we have seen from Isaac, but the Magic are always cautious with players’ health. They know there is a bigger picture at play.

For the time being, the Magic will be without one of the biggest catalysts for their team. A player who is making waves and seemed well on his way to earning the first of many All-Defensive Team nods.

But even without him, Orlando is a playoff-caliber team. The Magic lose a lot, but they do not lose everything. And this team is still capable of holding the boat steady for Isaac’s return and to secure their spot in the East’s top-8.

Isaac’s impact

Make no mistake about it, the Magic lose a lot in losing Isaac for this long.

Isaac was leading the league in “stocks” averaging 4.9 per game (2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals per game). He is one of the few players in the league averaging 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per game.

Isaac is averaging career highs in scoring (12.0 points per game), rebounds (6.9 rebounds per game) and shooting (46.3 percent from the floor). By all accounts, Isaac was showing some extreme growth in his third season in the league, building off a strong finish to last year that helped guide the Magic to the playoffs.

The Magic have a 105.1 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor, the best among the team’s starters. Overall, the Magic are better with Isaac on the floor (+0.3 points per 100 possessions, trailing only Nikola Vucevic in that category).

Isaac is one of the few players (if any) on the Magic, whose presence seems to command some respect. He is ever-present defensively.

Without a doubt, Orlando will miss Isaac. Isaac makes a lot of players’ lives easier as someone who can clean up messes. The Magic could trust him to lock down his man or use him as a roamer in the paint.

Isaac is everywhere.

There is no right way to replace this. The task for the Orlando Magic is now much harder and much more difficult. Everything for the team feels up in the air.

But the team’s goal remains the same. Orlando’s season was only successful if the team made the playoffs. And that is still not only possible but expected.

The Orlando Magic will start with at least a little bit of a cushion, holding a 2.5-game lead over the Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls for that final playoff spot. Orlando will play 10 teams with records worse than .500 in the next 24 games — including big games against the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons.

The Magic will still have a big say in their playoff destiny. And winning these games becomes even more important now.

Filling In

It also becomes a lot harder. Isaac impacts so much defensively, even if the numbers do not show it.

For the short term, the biggest problem for the Magic is the lack of depth at power forward. Al-Farouq Aminu’s torn meniscus and Aaron Gordon’s bothersome ankle injury has depleted the team at the 4.

Khem Birch filled in admirably at power forward against the Washington Wizards, but that cannot be a long-term solution. The Magic will have to use that empty roster spot on a 10-day contract most likely (starting Sunday when teams can sign such contracts).

The good news is Aaron Gordon sounds like he is close to his return. Gordon is still listed as questionable for the Magic’s game Friday against the Heat. That could change after the team’s shootaround.

The onus will fall more on Gordon to be solid defensively and help out with some of the things Isaac did as a help defender. And with the margin for error smaller, he will have to be more efficient offensively.

Potentially having another shooter on the perimeter with Gordon could free up space for him — the Magic are a -3.3 points per 100 possessions with Gordon and Isaac on the floor together this year. Gordon has struggled this year — and injuries have played a major part.

Orlando has already faced a ton of bad luck with injuries this season. Orlando found a way to scratch out wins while missing its best player in Nikola Vucevic for four weeks, going 5-6. The team found its footing and stuck together to generate enough offense to be competitive.

It was not easy. Orlando’s wins in that stretch all came against teams with records worse than .500. The Magic’s “best” win in that stretch came against the 13-21 Phoenix Suns. But winning those games is still vitally important to keeping pace in the playoff hunt.

They did it once, they can do it again.

Next Man Up

Replacing Isaac is difficult defensively. But Isaac’s impact was never really felt on the offensive end.

He is a solid offensive player, but the Magic never ran plays for him. He got most of his points running in transition and attacking the offensive glass. That energy will be missed too. Those easy points are vital to a team that struggles to score.

Everyone is going to have to step in and fill that void. The team will have to be tighter defensively and more focused. They will have to be energetic.

It is a collective effort to replace even some of what Isaac did. But the team has the capability. They stepped up before without a key player in the lineup. They held the boat steady and kept their spot.

This will be the toughest part of the schedule coming up. The Magic have a four-game homestand against several key opponents — including Monday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets — and then take a six-game trip out West. After that, the schedule gets considerably softer, at least on paper.

If the Magic bring the right approach and concerted effort, they have the tools and the consistency to still achieve this goal. After all, Orlando is statistically just as good defensively with Isaac on and off the floor.

That is an oversimplification. The Magic are a worse team without Isaac. He makes plays to save possessions that no one else on the team can make. At the end of the day, the game is about making winning plays. Isaac makes a lot of those. And defensive plays are harder to replicate — there are always shots to go around.

But the Magic can hold the boat steady. The East is full of teams eager to make their run. But as bad as the Magic have played so far, nobody has made the run to threaten them.

They have to play like it and it will take intense effort and focus to do so. That is not always how this team has played this year. The

Orlando is still in control of its destiny. With veteran players who know how to make the playoffs now and perhaps absence sharpening their focus, the Magic are still a playoff team without Isaac.

Next: Orlando Magic still searching for playoff mentality

Or, at least, until Isaac returns in March.

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