Lakeland Magic Win 2021 G League Championship at Walt Disney World

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - It was a little after the midway point of the season – ironically while in action against the Delaware Blue Coats – when Lakeland Magic Head Coach Stan Heath and star player Devin Cannady saw a dramatic change in their team. It was such a substantial shift that they started believing they had the right attitude, chemistry and determination to do big things should they qualify for the playoffs.

The confidence from there grew, their defense became immovable and the offense began to click. Winners of five of their last six regular season games, starting with that Feb. 26 contest against the Blue Coats, Lakeland not only secured a postseason spot, which they’ve done every year since arriving in Polk County in 2017, they essentially transformed into the best team in the G League.

The combination of Lakeland’s smothering defense and unselfishness on the offensive end led to a 97-78 rout in the 2021 championship game over Delaware on Thursday at Walt Disney World. From the opening tip until the final buzzer, the Magic were the hungrier, zestier team. They opened the game with eight unanswered points and refused to take their feet off the gas pedal. Cannady, who back in December was with the Orlando Magic for training camp and preseason games, was named Finals MVP after scoring a game-high 22 points.

“The MVP trophy, I’ve said multiple times, is a team trophy,” said the 24-year-old, who played collegiately at Princeton. “The past eight games when we were on our roll, someone different stepped up every night. My goal has always been to be a team player on offense, be selfless on defense and I think that’s been one thing that’s contributed to our success. Winning the championship was the primary goal for us coming in here. We didn’t want to come in (and) go play individually, look for our own stats. We wanted to compete for a championship, which we did. The MVP trophy is just a team trophy.”

Key to the team’s success ever since the team relocated to Lakeland has been the commitment from the DeVos family, Magic CEO Alex Martins, minority owner Steve Demetriou, Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and General Manager John Hammond, all of whom have been instrumental in creating a winning culture in Lakeland.

Each of them have said many times that having the Magic’s G League club less than an hour from the Amway Center is a major benefit for young players. It has made it easier for them to develop and get familiar with the Magic’s brand of basketball. Several current and former Magic players, including Khem Birch, Jonathan Isaac and Chuma Okeke, have spent some time in Lakeland to sharpen their skills and/or rehab an injury in the past.

The two main architects of Lakeland’s roster, General Manager Anthony Parker and Assistant GM Tunji Adedipe, have worked side by side with Heath and his coaching staff to get the most out of their players, many of whom have gone on to have success in the NBA, either in Orlando or elsewhere around the league. What’s also come with that is a lot of winning.

In Lakeland’s inaugural 2017-18 season, they reached the postseason. The following year, they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Before the G League’s 2019-20 season had to be canceled a little after the midway point because of the pandemic, they were in position to make another deep playoff run. And now, after entering the 2021 postseason as the No. 6 seed, Lakeland is celebrating the franchise’s first championship.

“I can’t thank them enough,” Heath said of everyone in the organization who has played a huge role in fostering Lakeland’s growth and success. “It starts with making the commitment to come here (Disney). Everybody didn’t make that same commitment to bring a team into this bubble. They invested in us. They supported us. We really appreciate that. I told our players that from day one, like hey let’s show with our play our appreciation for allowing us to have this opportunity, so we’re very thankful for that. I think everybody feels really good about that investment in our basketball team.”

While their defense was stellar from the get-go, it was Lakeland’s offense that blossomed at the ideal time. In the first round of the playoffs against the Erie BayHawks, the Magic drilled a G League postseason-record 23 3-pointers. Then in the win over the Santa Cruz Warriors in the semifinals, they knocked down 17 triples. Against the Blue Coats in the final, they buried 12 shots from beyond the arc.

Also a factor was the chemistry they developed. It was never just one guy carrying the team. In fact, in the playoffs the Magic didn’t have regular season leading scorer Mamadi Diakite, a Milwaukee Bucks two-way contract player who was recalled by the Bucks last week.

Throughout Lakeland’s playoff run, someone different led the team in scoring. Antonio Campbell scored a game-high 25 points against Erie in the opening round, Robert Franks led the way in the semifinals against Santa Cruz with 23 points and in the championship game it was Cannady that got hot.

“I think that just really speaks to our team. The strength of our team is that there’s not one guy, there’s not two guys, every single time we played there was a different guy that had huge impact on how we played and how we won,” Heath said.

Elated to learn about Lakeland winning the G League title was Orlando Head Coach Steve Clifford, who was preparing for his team’s game against the Miami Heat while the championship game was going on.

“It’s great. I had talked to Stan yesterday. They played great. Not just in the playoff games, but they had to play their way in,” Clifford said. “They played well on both ends of the floor. I believe they were first in defense and then obviously they shot the ball incredibly well here in the playoffs. Happy for him (Heath), those guys, Anthony Parker and all the hard work they do. It was great to see.”

All of the 2021 G League games were played at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, where the NBA completed its 2019-20 season. As it was for the NBA over the summer and into the fall, Disney created a safe environment for all of the 18 G League teams that participated, including the G League Ignite Team made up of NBA prospects and veterans.

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