Orlando Magic confident in lineup change with Jonathan Isaac

The Orlando Magic went all in for their do-or-die game to close th regular season. They stayed with the same lineup for Game 1 in the Playoffs and are confident sticking with it.
The Orlando Magic opted to make a lineup change before Game 1 sticking with Jonathan Isaac at center. They are confident they can shake off whatever struggles they had Saturday.
The Orlando Magic opted to make a lineup change before Game 1 sticking with Jonathan Isaac at center. They are confident they can shake off whatever struggles they had Saturday. / David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Jamahl Mosley played coy with his starting lineup before Saturday's Game 1 between the Orlando Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers, waiting until the last possible moment to reveal who would start the game to the public -- and, more importantly, to his opponent.

He and the team already knew which direction they were going. They were going all-in on the versatility and defensive smothering they can get with Jonathan Isaac. For this series, they wanted to try to pull the Cavs' size away from the basket.

They knew pretty early on in their week of prep for the season that they were going to start Isaac just like they did in that final game, revealing perhaps this is the ideal lineup the Magic were always chasing.

Orlando doubled down on versatility and Isaac's crazy defensive impact and energy as a way to fix their slow starts and combat the Cavaliers' size advantage. It is a group the team had enough confidence to stick with, despite the struggles in Game 1.

"We have some switchability there," coach Jamahl Mosley said after practice Sunday. "We have the ability to protect the rim. That's not saying it stays the same the entire time. From what we've seen with the sample size of it, the way we were able to maneuver different bodies in different positions and different lineups, we can mix guys in a little bit later or a bit earlier in the rotation. It helps out."

The results though? They still need some work.

The Cavaliers were still able to get off to a fast start, winning the minutes in the first quarter at least with that lineup in the game 29-19. The Magic would say the Cavs hit some tough shots -- including a tough three at the shot-clock buzzer over two defenders.

Overall, Orlando's starting group had a -16.3 net rating in 27 minutes (58-48 raw score, shooting only 34.0 percent from the floor). They were solid defensively as you would expect with a 103.6 defensive rating, built mostly in a dominant third quarter. But they scored only 87.3 points per 100 possessions.

The slow start to the game was definitely a major factor in the loss. And the Magic are still trying to get on the same page as a group.

"I think [we did] well," Isaac said after practice Sunday. "We messed up a couple of coverages on switching and getting to Jarrett a little bit late. Overall I think we did OK. Holding them under 100 points against a team that score the ball is pretty good."

The starting lineup did find itself again in the third quarter. That part of the Magic's starting group has not changed. They outscored the Cavs 21-16 in nearly 12 minutes during the second half. There were good things from that group as they got on the floor together more.

They just have not played together much.

The starting lineup with Jonathan Isaac in for Wendell Carter played only 44 minutes together during the regular season. They had a 106.2 offensive rating and 101.0 defensive rating for a +5.2 net rating.

That is stifling defense, but an extremely underwhelming offense. And, it should be noted, in the regular season finale against the Milwaukee Bucks, the group got off to a slow start in that game.

The struggle in Saturday's Game 1 was that the Magic's starters did not defend well to start the game and then the bench did not provide its usual lift, one of the trickle-down effects of changing the starting lineup.

The bench lineup of Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, Joe Ingles, Moe Wagner and Wendell Carter got outscored 10-5 in less than five minutes. The Magic will have to shorten their rotation to ensure one of Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner are on the floor to give them some attacking juice. That group got a quick hook.

Losing the advantage the Magic usually get from its bench groups was a big factor in Game 1.

Everyone is getting acclimated now to a new rotation and a new lineup. The Magic were testing out Isaac as the backup center and first man off the bench late in the season. But this wholesale change is something completely new that may take some time to fit into place.

The Magic have to have the confidence they can figure this out quickly.

"That's a good part about having great people in the locker room," Jalen Suggs said after practice Sunday. "It's easy to make those transitions. They are almost seamless. All of us are so selfless. We just want to play together and find a way to continue to get wins. JI has done a great job coming in and contributing at that 5 spot and giving us more versatility offensively and defensively."

Nobody is worried about the defense. They are not even worried about how Jonathan Isaac matched up with Jarrett Allen, perhaps the biggest concern of starting Isaac at center.

Allen scored 16 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the game (although just three offensive rebounds). He scored most of his points from guards sucking Isaac to the ball and getting the ball to Allen in the dunker spot. Isaac can be a bit more disciplined keeping his feet, giving himself a chance to recover and challenge Allen around the basket.

One of the defensive adjustments for Game 2 is certainly going to be about limiting dribble penetration and being cleaner on these rotations. It is among the many little things the Magic hope to fine-tune to have a shot at winning Game 2.

"It's not like he's a post-up center," Isaac said after practice Sunday. "So really, for him, it's just coverages and he got a bunch of dump-offs with me rotating. We have to be quicker with our rotations after rotations. It's not like we're going up against a big who is going to back you down and you have to guard one on one. I think our rotations are really important with him being a crashing big and somebody who can finish at the rim."

Those rotations though typically come from players who are on a string and knowing how to play and move with each other. This is an experience and fluidity the team is missing from the lineup change.

Orlando will have to find its way if this is the decision the team wants to make. In a reversal from the regular season, the Magic were at their worst defensively on Saturday with Isaac on the floor -- a 108.5 defensive rating, which would be stellar under any other circumstance.

The team is likely moving forward with this group and trusting they can be more level-headed at the start to take advantage of their defense overall.

"I think it looked good from a game-planning standpoint," Mosley said after practice Sunday. "Part of that was early on they watched a couple of basketballs go through the hoop early. Evan Mobley made two threes, Donovan Mitchell made a big one. They started the game off 5 for 5 from three. From there, I thought we did a pretty good job defensively within the gameplan of what we were trying to accomplish."

How quickly they can make that adjustment with these new lineups will now be a big determining factor in how this series will go. It is certainly a risk to make such a change to the playing rotations at such a critical time.

Orlando Magic did not shrink from Playoff debut. dark. Next. Magic Playoff Debut 04.21.24

But like with everything coming out of Game 1, there is still a lot of confidene things will swing the right way in Game 2.