PHOENIX – For almost every young player, there’s a sort of ``Welcome to the NBA’’ moment that arrives where they find themselves simultaneously in awe of their surroundings and in shock with how reality compares to the dream.
For Orlando Magic second-year forward Jonathan Isaac – who is, in essence still an NBA rookie in many ways after injuries marred much of his first season – that ``Welcome to the NBA’’ moment came this past Monday in Oakland while facing the defending-champion Golden State Warriors.
Isaac’s matchup for the night, facing two-time NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant, was the incarnation of a dream coming true right before his eyes. For years, Durant’s picture had always been the wallpaper on Isaac’s phone and watching the superstar’s highlights became part of his usual routine before games in high school, college and even the NBA. And in millions of dreamy instances, Durant was the always the long and lanky, 7-foot figure in front of the long and lanky, nearly-7-foot Isaac when he imagined them squaring off in mythical matchups.
``I thought about (facing Durant) a lot more so after the game was over. Really, just that craziness of being a kid and having a player that you looked up to and having those thoughts of, `Man, I can’t wait until I get to the NBA and play him and beat him and do all of these different things,’’’ recalled Isaac, whose Magic (10-12) close out their five-game, nine-night road trip on Friday against the Phoenix Suns (4-17).
``To have part of that come true, going up against the guy you have been watching all those years, watching highlights of him before your games and taking his moves and trying them yourself, it was all just crazy for me,’’ Isaac added. ``Definitely, it was a great moment.’’
Sometimes, however, dreams get doused by ice-cold splashes of harsh reality. Many of the same highlights that Isaac watched for years he got to see up close and personal on Monday as Durant dropped a game-high 49 points to lift the Warriors to a 116-110 victory over the upstart Magic. Not only did Durant score 29 second-half points to erase Orlando’s 18-point lead, but he hit a stone-cold, dagger of a 3-pointer with 21 seconds left over Isaac’s outstretched arm to seal the game.
Pro sports, such as the NBA, can be cruel sometimes for young players in that superstars they grow up idolizing can sometimes break their hearts. Some 15 years ago, Magic fans might remember precocious center Dwight Howard being shoved in the back by his idol, Kevin Garnett, to prevent a dunk, and Howard never looked at the future Hall of the Famer the same over the next decade.
In Isaac’s case, Durant both hurt him and helped him with the sequence of events from Monday’s game.
``K.D.’s so good and it was tough, but on that last play I really think I could have defended it better. I wasn’t thinking that he was going to go for that (3-point shot) at that time. But you learn from moments like that,’’ said Isaac, who initially shifted to his left to play Durant for the drive before trying to scurry back to the 3-point line to contest the shot.
``Absolutely, it gives me fuel to get better,’’ he continued. ``I want to be able to defend him, to be able to score like him and do everything well like he does in games like that one.’’
MORE MISERY IN PORTLAND ON WEDNESDAY
Just two nights after Durant’s heroics, Isaac and the Magic were victimized by another superstar performance in Portland on Wednesday and lost 115-112. Damian Lillard, who had 41 points in Orlando back in late October, pumped in another 41 points on Wednesday by drilling seven 3-pointers in third quarter and 10 in the game – both shooting marks franchise records for the Trail Blazers.
Despite all of that, Orlando still found itself trailing just 111-110 with 2:01 to play. But the Magic’s bid for a victory would be dashed by four untimely turnovers – two of which were committed by the 21-year-old Isaac. He was hard on himself after the game and he stressed that Orlando must find a way to turn things around in Friday’s game against the rebuilding Suns.
``It’s extremely frustrating and we have to win these games. That’s the bottom line,’’ said Isaac, who started in place of injured forward Aaron Gordon (low back stiffness). ``That’s two nights and a couple of games when we haven’t been able to execute down the stretch. It’s something that we’re going to have to do if we want to be a serious team.
``(Friday’s game) is extremely important. It’s a must-win,’’ Isaac added. ``We have to go into Phoenix and take it. (The Suns) are not going to give it to us.’’
ISAAC IMPRESSIVE IN MANY PHASES
Finally beyond the ankle injuries that put a damper on his rookie season and threatened this one early on, Isaac has shed the minutes restriction placed upon him and has started to blossom into the dynamic two-way player the Magic hoped he would become when they drafted No. 6 overall in 2017. In the game against Golden State, Isaac had 15 points, four rebounds, three 3-pointers and a steal and he followed that performance up with 16 points, seven rebounds, two threes and a block against the Blazers.
In tying his career-high for minutes (30) again, Isaac affected the game in a variety of ways. He had Orlando’s highest plus-minus ratio in the Portland game (plus-8) and, as Magic head coach Steve Clifford, ``things just make sense when he’s on the floor.’’
``You just watch him – when he’s open, he shoots it and when he’s not, he moves it. Not all guys play like that,’’ Clifford raved recently. ``And on the defensive end, when a guy is beaten cleanly, he helps. When he doesn’t need to help, he doesn’t help. When you watch him, you don’t say, `Why would you do that?’ You say, `That was a smart play.’ You don’t teach that stuff. That’s just basketball IQ and feel for the game and those are a couple of his really exceptional traits.
``Again, you can never have too many guys who are easy to play with,’’ Clifford added. ``He plays in a manner that helps his teammates play better.’’
While those platitudes certainly matter to Isaac, it was compliments provided by Durant following Monday’s game that left Isaac somewhat speechless. Following the final buzzer, the two shared an embrace at midcourt with Durant whispering words of encouragement to Isaac.
``He just told me that he really loved what I was doing, and I tried to give him the respect that he deserved for hitting that (game-sealing) shot,’’ Isaac said. ``What I’ve always loved about my own game is my versatility, and I ultimately want to see it grow into what he does today.’’
Isaac said the true magnitude of the moment in facing his idol for the first time didn’t hit him until the next day when a friend of his sent him a Twitter picture of the two of them embracing. Isaac repurposed the picture, posting it to Instagram with the following message: My favorite player growing up! @easymoneysniper Playing against you was a million times better than the million times I thought about it as a kid! I have another million thoughts stored up of beating you and last night added a million more. Thank you for the lesson! Thank you for the fuel!
Isaac and the Magic don’t face Durant and the Warriors again until Feb. 28 when they host them at the Amway Center. Until that moment, Isaac figures to do what he did millions of times as a teenager looking up to an idol – dream about another matchup, study and steal his moves relentlessly and try to uncover ways to finally beat him. Like Monday’s matchup, it will undoubtedly be another surreal moment for Isaac, but he knows he’ll be better prepared next time around. After all, Durant has always been the source of fuel to burn the fire inside Isaac.
``During the game, I was locked in on my assignment the best I could. But after the game and (Tuesday) night, I was like `Wow, what a moment,’’’ Isaac said of the positive memories that he takes away from facing Durant the first time. ``I saw the picture when a friend of mine sent it to me and I was just like, `Wow, just seeing me standing next to him and having him tell me that he really likes what I’m up to, it was all just really crazy to me.’ But it gives me that motivation going forward.’’
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