Nobody knew what to expect when Jonathan Isaac touched an NBA floor for the first time in more than two years. If anything, that unknown is what made the team more cautious than ever. Their public fears were about building his conditioning to get him ready.
At some point, they had to throw him out there. So they made the pact that he would get two short bursts for somewhere between 8-10 minutes in Monday’s game against the Boston Celtics.
Getting through those minutes would be victory enough. This is just the important first step for Isaac in his still long-term recovery as he ramps up his minutes.
Isaac though tried to get a lot in his short burst. He got a lot out of his short burst.
Jonathan Isaac made the most of his limited time in his return game after 2.5 years recovering from injury. Even in those short 10 minutes, he showe dhow he can impact winning on and off the court.
And the Magic got a win over the Celtics — a dominant 113-98 victory. And Isaac was right there in the middle of it. It was hard not to let the cart go before the horse because of how well he played.
Take a breath, this is just the start. Even if it was a breathtaking one.
"“It has been such a long road thinking about all that it has taken to get here,” Isaac said after Monday’s win. “The tough days, the good days, the bad days, the ups and downs. All the people who were part of getting me back. My family, my church family, my faith that I have been able and fortunate enough to lean on this entire time. I wouldn’t be here. The adrenaline and everything that’s going on. Trying my best to stay grounded and grateful. Just trying to bottle all that up in one moment. It was surreal.”"
There were a lot of people for Isaac to thank from those mentioned above, to the coaching staff and player support staff who worked with him when the team was on the road or in the controlled settings as part of his rehab to the fans that welcomed him back so lovingly and stuck with him through thick and thin.
He said he would be lying if he said he was not sure he would get all the way back as he did. It was an unusually long absence with tons of twists and turns and ups and downs in the process.
His finally touching the floor and getting back into the flow was something of a miracle. But it is just the beginning.
Isaac scored 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting, adding three rebounds and two steals for good measure. He did not record a block but he certainly made his presence in the paint felt. Opponents — including Jayson Tatum — seemed to be a bit taken aback by his size and athleticism.
All the elements and hints of the player he was were still there. And those are the hints the Magic want to exploit and grow as Isaac continues to get back.
"“I thought he was great,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Monday’s win. “I thought he did a great job playing with a level of poise. That was the importance of him getting the G-League time. There were a ton of emotions and rightfully so. I thought he was great in the way he handled himself, defensively his ability to get after the basketball and offensively not trying to rush too many things.”"
Isaac’s first four-minute stint in the first half was characterized by him getting his feet wet. He said he did not feel like he got settled in until after he hit a turnaround jumper on his second touch of the game — his first touch, he seemed determined to get to the basket and got overeager in missing a layup thinking his defender would try to take a charge.
Isaac’s involvement in the first half seemed a bit disruptive to the good flow the Magic had — they were -5 in his first half stint, but who is counting? Who could blame Orlando for getting him involved and getting him that full experience?
His second-half stint looked like the Isaac of old.
He looked more integrated and comfortable on both ends of the floor, draining two big 3-pointers. His final act of the game was picking Jaylen Brown clean, sparking a fast break that ended with Jonathan Isaac looping a pass to Paolo Banchero for a dunk.
This is the defensive terror Isaac was before the injury. To see that poke its head out was certainly encouraging.
The Magic were +12 in his second-half minutes as he played a part of the Magic’s decisive 20-5 run to take back control over the game and put the Celtics beyond their reach for this one. It is hard not to see how Isaac played an impact on the win.
Everyone knows like with Isaac’s return, that part is just starting too.
"“We’re barely scratching the surface of what this team is going to be,” Isaac said after Monday’s game. “The more that I get integrated and the more all of us continue to learn to play with each other, I really do believe the sky is the limit. I can’t even go off of tonight because I know there are so many layers of me continuing to get acclimated and guys getting acclimated to me.”"
Understandably, Isaac was winded from even playing 10 minutes in two 4-5-minute increments. That is the part the Magic are still looking to develop and evolve as he continues to rehab.
But all those elements that made Isaac such a winning player were there. He was aggressive but controlled on offense as he continues to expand his shooting. His defense was ever-present even when he was not the one making defensive plays. And those moments of his incredible athleticism and length showed how good he can be.
The thing with Isaac is he has been a quiet presence for the team throughout his time out. He has been someone who has been a constant encourager from the sideline and when guys were out with injury.
Integrating him back into the team will certainly not be the issue for this team.
"“Being out that long can definitely be frustrating,” Cole Anthony said after Monday’s win. “I know he felt like he could have come back sooner. He’s been super supportive of the team as a whole. He hits us when we play well. Just an overall great locker-room guy and a pleasure to have as a teammate.”"
There was still that distance and that gap that needed to be bridged. As good as Isaac was off the court for this team as a leader and an example of the constant grind of playing this game, he is even more important on teh court.
That much was clear even after one game and one limited performance. This is a group that could do some very special things and build in fascinating and fun ways. It just adds to the intrigue and promise of this young roster.
For so long, Isaac was the great mystery for this group. Now that mystery is starting to get solved with each moment on the court.
"“Relief and peace. Like God, you got me,” Isaac said of his feelings after completing Monday’s game. “I appreciate it. He truly is faithful. I just want to thank Him. Because this night could have went so many ways. For it to go the way it did, I appreciate Him for it. There is just a peace, there is a relief to it. Let’s keep going.”"
It was a long journey. But the journey is just beginning.
Already is clear what a boost Isaac can be and that all that talent and ability and skill are all there waiting to come forward once again.