Playing Isaac at Center Proved Effective Against Raptors

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

ORLANDO – If necessity truly is the mother of all invention, then the old English proverb was never more correct than in the fourth quarter of the Orlando Magic’s game against the Toronto Raptors on Monday.

With starting center Nikola Vucevic suffering through one of the worst games of his NBA career and backup Mo Bamba mostly ineffective, Orlando head coach Steve Clifford was in dire need of a spark for his struggling team.

Then, out of sheer necessity, Clifford turned to 6-foot-10, 230-pound forward Jonathan Isaac as the Magic’s center opposite hulking Toronto standout Marc Gasol and proven veteran Serge Ibaka. In the process, Clifford and Isaac might have uncovered an odd adjustment that could ultimately sling-shot Orlando out of its ugly three-game offensive funk to start the season.

With the Magic falling down 10 points just seconds after Isaac had checked in for Bamba, the blossoming forward/converted center delivered a sequence so stirring that it swung the game’s momentum around completely.

After burying a corner 3-pointer, Isaac stuffed an Ibaka shot attempt at the rim with a resounding block. Two minutes later, when Toronto seemed to have steadied itself by reclaiming an 11-point lead, an out-of-position Isaac got the Magic going again and what transpired was a 13-0 burst that gave Orlando a stunning two-point lead.

Ultimately, Magic’s pick-and-roll defense on Kyle Lowry down the stretch would cost them a chance at nabbing the win, and instead they had to settle for a 104-95 loss. Even in defeat, an Orlando team in desperate need of a jump start just might have found something with Isaac at the center position of a small-ball, position-fluid lineup.

``We talked about that (position switch) through training camp and we practiced it with me at the (center position), so I was comfortable with it,’’ Isaac said afterward. ``We went to it, tried to play out of it and win the game.’’

Isaac, who recently turned 22 years old and a player who could be poised for a breakout season in his third year in the NBA, was brilliant throughout on Monday. Not only did he make a career-best five 3-pointers, but he also notched another career high in scoring with 24 points. He almost single-handedly kept the struggling Magic within striking distance by also chipping in seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks.

And these numbers might prove to be even more telling: In Isaac’s nine minutes and 18 seconds as the Magic’s center in the fourth quarter, he had eight points, two rebounds and three free-throw makes, and he added a blocked shot and a steal.

``He battled, shot the ball great and I thought he did a great job defensively. He battled and played an all-around game,’’ Clifford, whose Magic (1-2) host the New York Knicks (1-3) on Wednesday (tip time: 7 p.m., TV: Fox Sports Florida). ``(Playing Isaac at center) is something we planned to do (since) the summer, so it’s not something new. That’s something that is going to be a part of what we do as we go forward.’’

Orlando is having to tinker with its rotations and substitution patterns because of the struggles of a starting five that returns all five pieces from last season when it went 42-40 and reached the playoffs. Going back to the second half of the opening win against Cleveland, when the Magic had to rally to outscore the Cavs 44-39 over the final 24 minutes, Clifford hasn’t been pleased with the play of a starting group that includes D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Vucevic and Isaac.

The struggles of that lineup played a big role in Orlando being outscored 24-16 in last Wednesday’s third quarter against Cleveland. Also, the Magic were outscored in both halves (52-50 and 51-49) in Atlanta on Saturday and in the first (31-22) and third quarters (27-21) in Toronto on Monday.

Huffed an irked Clifford: ``We’re getting off to such bad starts with our starters. That’s five straight halves now (of being outplayed) and we’re playing from behind, which is hard to do.’’

A big part of those issues, of course, stem from the mysterious struggles of Vucevic and Gordon. The 7-footer, who re-signed with the Magic in early July, labored through a one-of-13 shooting night on Monday, bringing his shooting totals to 16 of 48 overall (33.3 percent) and two of 13 from 3-point range (15.4 percent) for the season.

As for Gordon, he also hasn’t shot it well from the floor (seven of 24, 29.2 percent) or the 3-point line (one of six, 16.7 percent), leading to even more problems when he’s attempted to drive to the rim or post up (five turnovers).

Vucevic, for one, said he isn’t about to panic, especially after making the NBA All-Star Game last season while becoming just the third player in the 30-year history of the Magic to average at least 20 points and 12 rebounds over a full season.

``It’s just about moving onto the next game and I’ve got to keep working on my game,’’ said Vucevic, who exited Monday’s game averaging 14 points and 10.7 rebounds. ``I’m not worried about it because I know I’ll snap out of it. (On Tuesday), I’ll go to the gym and get shots up and then be ready for New York. All it takes is a few shots to go in or one big game and then you’ll forget about the game before.’’

In most instances, a player wouldn’t want to forget a night where they scored a career-best 24 points and drilled five 3-pointers, but Isaac said that was the case for him on Monday. After the Magic failed to get a win, he was left feeling mostly hollow about his effort.

``It’s all about the win and I could care less about that (career high in scoring),’’ said Isaac, who easily topped his previous high of 20 points scored last February in a victory in New Orleans. ``I want to win, and I want this team to win. It’s just about getting back to the drawing board, going home and being better.’’

Undoubtedly, the Magic were better on Monday with Isaac at the center position. He spent most of the offseason on a regimented diet, eating the equivalent of six meals a day in order to try and bulk up his previously rail-thin body. Ultimately, he went from 209 to about 230 pounds.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Isaac wants to spend games banging down low with centers the size of Gasol (255 pounds) or Ibaka (235 pounds), but he’s willing to occasionally make the position switch during games if it helps the Magic be more successful.

``I was just trying to be as physical as possible,’’ said Isaac, whose physicality allowed him to get to the free throw line five times (all makes) on Monday. ``I know the rebounding is going to be tough, so as soon as the shot goes up, I’m looking for (the opposing centers for box outs). And, at the same time, I’m trying to use my (quickness) advantages on offense with slips (of screens) and picking and flaring out to the three before (the other center) can get out there. I want to use my advantages, but also compensate (for his lack of bulk).’’

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