Isaac returned in Monday’s 113-98 win over the Boston Celtics at Amway Center — his first NBA game since Aug. 2, 2020, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the NBA “bubble” at Disney World.
“We’re all excited for him,” coach Jamahl Mosley said pregame. “You talk about the number of days he’s been out — years. His ability to come back and stay the course the entire process with his faith, work ethic and the support system he has behind him has been tremendous.”
Isaac was upgraded to questionable Sunday before being upgraded to available after the team’s 4 p.m. pregame walkthrough.
He hadn’t played since tearing his ACL, missing the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons and half of this one — making it 904 days between his last NBA game and his return.
Mosley said Isaac was on a playing-time restriction of 8-10 minutes. He made the most of his minutes and left a positive impact, especially in the second half.
Isaac finished with 10 points (4-of-7 shooting, 2 of 3 on 3-pointers), 3 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 assist in 10 minutes — two five-minute stints.
He subbed in for Franz Wagner with 7 minutes remaining in the first quarter to a standing ovation to officially make his return.
He wasted little time trying to find his offensive rhythm, missing a layup during his first possession on the floor.
Isaac made a 12-foot turnaround jumper over Jaylen Brown on the next possession for his first points, giving the Magic a 15-8 lead.
He had 4 points and 3 rebounds in his first-quarter first stint of 4:25.
Isaac looked especially comfortable during his second round of playing time in the third.
He made a timely weakside rotation to get his first steal under the basket on a pass by Brown before dribbling the ball up the floor and knocking down a pull-up 3 to give the Magic a 71-68 lead.
Isaac picked Brown’s pocket for a steal and an assist to Paolo Banchero for a dunk in transition to give the Magic an 86-73 lead with 2:04 in the quarter before subbing out.
“There [are] no words to describe how great he is defensively,” Mosley said. “He just sees the game differently. His activity, length, knowledge and anticipation of things happening defensively. What I didn’t know walking in was how much work he’s put in offensively to look a different way than the traditional style of basketball — the way he handles the basketball, shooting. He’s done a tremendous job improving all of that.”
The Magic (18-29) maintained control of the game from there, pulling out their third win over the defending Eastern Conference champions to clinch their season series. Orlando had consecutive victories at Boston (35-13) in mid-December.
Banchero led the Magic with 23 points (7-of-13 shooting) and 5 rebounds.
Cole Anthony finished with 18 points (8-of-12 shooting), 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 23 minutes off the bench, providing the Magic with a needed spark in the first half.
Wendell Carter Jr. had a 21-point, 11-rebound double-double. Wagner finished with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, including 7 points in the fourth.
Brown (26 points) and Jayson Tatum (26) combined for 52 points. The league-leading Celtics were without Malcolm Brogdon (personal reasons), Marcus Smart (sprained right ankle) and Robert Williams III (left knee injury management).
Magic players, coaches and basketball operations staff members wore Isaac shirts pregame ahead of his return.
“I love it,” Mosley said. “You talk about the nature of who we are, this team and how together we are. No matter what, these guys stay together. That’s what’s so exciting about this group. This is just another step in the process. We talk about being special and building something special; this shows how these guys rally around one another.”
Monday was Isaac’s first game at Amway Center since Dec. 30, 2019, and first outside the league’s “bubble” since Jan. 1, 2020, in Washington.
“Embrace it,” Mosley said on his message to Isaac. “For what he’s been through, the ups and downs, the ins and outs, his ability to stay resilient, faithful and continue to work, you can only embrace these moments. As he gets acclimated to being back on the court, just play the game he knows how to play. Having fun and enjoying it with his teammates. That’s what it’s all been about.”
Before the injury, Isaac — the No. 6 pick in the 2017 draft — was having a breakout season for the Magic. He averaged 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.6 steals per game in 34 games during the 2019-20 season.
Isaac made his return to the floor before Monday.
He played three games with the organization’s G League affiliate, the Lakeland Magic, the previous two weeks, averaging 15.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 assists in 17.7 minutes.
“The great part about being with the G League is that he got to feel the levels of emotions and situations he’s going to be in,” Mosley said. “Coming back with us here, he’s already felt a little bit of that. Now it’ll probably be at a different level. Just communicating with him, and understanding how to settle himself down. Just embrace all of it. He has to. After being away for this long, you don’t want to shy back from that.”