MILWAUKEE – Like most things of substance in the NBA, catchy nicknames usually need time to marinate, resonate and become great before they stick with players.
Karl ``The Mailman’’ Malone only earned his nickname after years of delivering for the Utah Jazz. The same also applied to Allen ``The Answer’’ Iverson and Paul ``The Truth’’ Pierce after they stockpiled dozens of memorable moments late in games with their clutch play.
With his relative inexperience in mind, Orlando Magic Jonathan Isaac is still treading somewhat lightly around a catchy and very apropos nickname that is starting to stick with him as he evolves into one of the NBA’s best defensive players.
``The Minister of Defense,’’ was first attached to Isaac – the NBA’s leader in blocked shots at 2.75 swats a game – during Orlando’s defeat of Cleveland on Friday by Fox Sports Florida play-by-play announcer David Steele. The nickname has since gained popularity on social media as fans look to celebrate Isaac’s rise as an elite rim protector.
``The Minister of Defense’’ nickname is an obvious nod to Isaac’s strong religious faith and his willingness to give sermons at J.U.M.P. Ministries Global Church in Orlando from time to time. Isaac, 22, said he likes the moniker, but he wants to give it more time before fully embracing it because he wants to keep proving himself on the basketball court.
``I like it,’’ Isaac said while flashing a wide smile. ``I’m not sold on it yet, so I’m going to let it ride for a little bit. But it’s cool. I think it’s fun that the fans are engaged and want to come up with nicknames, so I’m with that.’’
Former University of Tennessee All-American defensive tackle Reggie White, who went on to star professionally for the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers, was often referred to ``The Minister of Defense’’ prior to his death in 2004.
Isaac’s four-block night in Cleveland on Friday allowed him to move back into first place in the NBA in blocked shots. His lead widened on Sunday night when Davis blocked just one shot during his 50-point outburst against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Isaac’s Magic and Davis’ Lakers play on Wednesday at the Amway Center.
``I think it’s awesome,’’ Isaac said of being the NBA leader in blocked shots. ``I just want to help my team win. It’s all about playing hard and making plays. When it’s there, I try to block everything, and I’ve been able to get my hands on a few balls.’’
WELCOMED SIGHT: The Magic got a welcomed sight on Monday when all-star center Nikola Vucevic ramped up on-court work that involved shooting, cutting and contact drills. Vucevic, an all-star last season when he led the team in scoring and rebounding, has been out since Nov. 20 when he suffered a lateral sprain in his right ankle following an awkward landing on a block attempt.
``I was able to shoot quite a bit, do some contact work and I ran a little bit as well,’’ Vucevic, who missed his ninth straight game on Monday in Milwaukee. ``I’ve been able to do more and more and we’re ramping it up. So, that’s the positive. It felt good, but there’s still some things that we need to go away.’’
Vucevic admitted that he is still dealing with the aftereffects of a bone bruise in his right ankle and some movements still cause pain and weakness. He’s trying to let the ankle fully heal while also working his way back into basketball shape.
``That’s actually the main source of discomfort and pain and that just take a little while and there’s not much you can do to heal it. It has to do it on its own,’’ Vucevic said of the bone bruise in his ankle. ``It’s still bothering me with certain movements and I just need it to calm down. Hopefully, it won’t be too long.’’
Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic, said he won’t need to go through a full team practice before returning to game action because of his familiarity with the team’s system. But he does want to get in as much two-on-two and three-on-three scrimmage action as possible so that he knows his ankle is sound before fully returning.
``It’s just me needing to be comfortable out there and doing all of those movements without having to think about it and doing it without having any restrictions,’’ he said.
``I’d like to (go through a full practice), but it also depends because our schedule is pretty tight now,’’ said Vucevic, whose Magic will practice fully on Thursday and Saturday of this week. ``We have two tough ones (after Monday in Milwaukee) and then we go to the West Coast. So, there won’t be much time. But with the guys who play less minutes and the coaching staff, we can get in some contact work. As long as I can get in with the guys and do some script offense and things of that nature to help me with my rhythm, I don’t think it will be too necessary (to go through a full practice) as long as I can do some contact and feel comfortable.’’
T-ROSS REVIVAL: A big reason why the Magic’s offense has been better of late is because they have found ways to get standout guard Terrence Ross more involved with more clean looks from 3-point range.
After averaging just 7.8 points and shooting only 23.8 percent from the floor in his first four games, Ross saw those numbers rise only slightly in 12 games in November (12.8 points on 43.4 percent shooting). However, Ross has looked much more like the player who carried the Magic’s offense for long stretches last season of late. In four December games, Ross has averaged 19 points a game while shooting 49 percent from the floor and 42.9 percent from 3-point range.
Ross’ December numbers are more in line with what he did last season when he averaged career highs across the board (15.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 217 made 3-pointers).
``One, he’s healthy after he had that kind of lingering (sore) knee thing,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``And if you look at him, he’s much more balanced (on his shots) than he was earlier in the year. I think the little knee injury that he had, it didn’t prevent him from playing, but he wasn’t explosive and those little leaners or fades, those aren’t him, normally. Balance is such a big part of shooting, and I think that was a big part of it.’’
Ross poured in a season-best 22 points on Wednesday versus Phoenix and he followed it up with 21 more on Friday in Cleveland. More importantly, he had 10 of those 21 points in Friday’s fourth quarter to help the Magic pull off a come-from-behind victory. Last season, Orlando tied for first in the NBA in wins when trailing after three periods (11) – many of which came after Ross, the team-leader in fourth-quarter scoring, heated up late.
``That was like a flashback to last season, for sure,’’ said guard Evan Fournier, referring to Ross rescuing the Magic in the fourth quarter.
Said Isaac of Ross: ``That’s what he does – he’s a bona-fide shot-maker. We trust him, we rely on him a lot and usually comes through for us.’’
UP NEXT: Expected to arrive back in Central Florida after 2 a.m., the Magic will be off on Tuesday. They will be back on the floor on Wednesday morning to prepare for that night’s game against the surging Los Angeles Lakers. Tipoff is just after 7 p.m. at the Amway Center.
Led by the play of LeBron James (25.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 10.8 assists) and Davis (27.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.68 blocks), the Lakers have won four in a row and 14 of the last 15 games. In their three previous games, the Lakers scored 142 against Minnesota, 136 points in Portland and 121 in Utah. The Lakers rank eighth in the NBA in scoring at 114.5 points per game.
Dwight Howard, the first pick of the 2004 NBA Draft by Orlando and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner while leading the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, has enjoyed a solid bounce-back season in his second stint with the Lakers. Howard is averaging 7.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots while shooting 74.2 percent from the field in 24 games off the bench.
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