Magic's 'Minister of Defense' Vying for All-Defense Accolades
MILWAUKEE – Throughout the season, as Jonathan Isaac has jockeyed with superstar swatter Anthony Davis for the NBA lead in blocked shots, the nearly 7-foot forward has said that he’s paid little attention to that statistical category as he’s kept his focus on simply trying to make winning plays for the Orlando Magic.
However, Isaac is now starting to see that there are definitive perks that come with being one of the NBA’s most renowned shot stuffers.
With his Magic clinging to a one-point lead with 3:39 to play on Friday in Cleveland, Isaac used every inch of his towering height and expansive wingspan to turn back a Tristan Thompson hook shot with one of those how-did-he-ever-reach-that blocked shots. But rather than celebrate right away, Isaac instead breathed a sigh of relief and was thankful for the leeway that his newfound status as an elite shot-blocker now provides.
``I thought they were going to call it, I thought they were going to call it goaltending,’’ said a relived Isaac after his Magic notched their fourth straight victory – this one a gritty 93-87 defeat of Cleveland. ``I just tried to get (Thompson’s hook shot) at its highest point, and they gave it to me. I think the refs are starting to let me slide a little bit and I like it.’’
The Magic (11-11) certainly like the progress made this season by the 22-year-old Isaac, especially on the defensive end of the floor. His four-block effort on Friday allowed him to retake the NBA lead for blocked shots per game at 2.75 just ahead of Davis’ 2.73 swats for the Lakers. What Friday’s strong effort also did was it further strengthened Isaac’s early bid for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award and its All-Defensive Team honors.
``He is one of the best defenders in the league,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, a player who knows a thing or two about defense considering that he’s often tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best wing scorer, while Isaac gets the best post player. ``With J.I., I’m going to say it over and over – he’s a special defender. He’s gotta be in contention for Defensive Player of the Year or (All) Defensive first team. He can guard (point guards) through (centers).’’
After playing eight games in the past 14 nights, Isaac and the Magic will get a chance to rest up the next two days before trying to pull off one of the biggest tasks in the NBA these days. Milwaukee (20-3) is next up for the Magic on Monday, and the Bucks will enter as winners of 14 straight after their resounding whipping of the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday.
That game will likely pit Isaac, at times, against reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. When the Magic and Bucks played back on Nov. 1 – a humbling 123-91 loss for Orlando – Isaac held Antetokounmpo to just nine points in the first half. Most of the damage that night by Antetokounmpo (29 points, 14 rebounds and six assists) came after the game got out of hand in the third and fourth quarters.
While Isaac has undoubtedly raised his profile defensively this season, he reminded on Friday that he’s also made major strides as an offensive player as well. With Friday’s game in Cleveland tied at 81, Isaac confidently drilled a 3-pointer that gave Orlando a lead it wouldn’t surrender the rest of the way.
Just seconds after the jaw-dropping block of the 6-foot-10 Thompson, Isaac sent the Magic on their way to a fourth straight win and a fifth victory in the last six games with a clutch 16-footer off a feed from teammate Evan Fournier.
``He’s had a lot of big shots, but I thought tonight, again, he had two of the three biggest shots of the game,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said of Isaac’s clutch play.
Isaac’s growth as a player has come about, in large part, because of the offseason work he did to grow his game and bulk his body up to 230 pounds. The added muscle and girth have allowed him to better absorb contact and still use his wingspan to smother shots by opposing players.
Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr., one of the league’s most explosively athletic players, found that out the hard way on Friday night. The Cavs’ forward hit Isaac with a shoulder as he attempted to also side-step his way to a layup. However, Isaac never flinched with the hit and promptly sent the layup attempt flying into the nearby courtside seats.
In addition to all of his blocks – he’s swatted two or more shots in 16 of the 20 games he’s played in this season – Isaac has also done plenty of the dirty work needed to make himself a complete defender. His 2.8 pass deflections and 1.4 steals lead the Magic and rank 22ndand 27threspectively in the NBA. Also, the rapidly blossoming Isaac ranks first on the Magic in points scored off of turnovers (2.9), fast break points (2.1), charges drawn (0.15), defensive loose balls recovered (0.6) and defensive win shares (0.124).
``His individual defense has really improved, and as a help defender, he’s just terrific,’’ Clifford raved.
Isaac’s signature moment of the young season on the defensive end came back on Nov. 6 in Dallas when he obliterated 7-foot-3 power forward Kristaps Porzingis. That night, Isaac registered a career-best six blocked shots and a season-high four steals while holding Porzingis to four-of-14 shooting and just 10 points in 34 minutes.
Do something similar to that on Monday night against the more powerful Antetokounmpo and Isaac’s profile as a dominant defender could soar to as high as he reached in the air on Friday to batt away Thompson’s hook shot. Still a work in progress offensively, Isaac knows he’s in the NBA largely because of his ability to swat shots. It’s something that has always come natural to him at every level of the game and he wants to keep doing it to help the Magic be successful.
``I feel like I’ve always been a pretty good shot-blocker just off instincts and being able to be quick off my feet,’’ he said. ``I just feel like I’ve always been a pretty decent shot-blocker.’’
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