Midway through the first quarter of the Orlando Magic’s 113-98 Monday home win over the Boston Celtics, Jonathan Isaac started to take a walk up the sidelines.
A moment that was more than 2½ years in the making. One he worried wouldn’t happen.
With a little over seven minutes remaining in the opening period, Isaac casually walked from the Magic’s bench toward the scorer’s table.
The closer Isaac got to the table, the louder the cheers grew from the sellout crowd of 19,196 inside Amway Center.
Coach Jamahl Mosley and Isaac shared a brief conversation near the table right before Isaac took off his shooting shirt.
As Isaac turned to the Rich and Helen DeVos Court while putting in his mouthpiece, he subbed in for Franz Wagner while Jayson Tatum was at the free throw line for his first NBA game in 904 days.
“Honestly, just everything,” Isaac responded when asked what was going through his mind as he was checking in. “It’s been such a long road. Thinking about all that it has taken to get here. The good days, the bad days, the ups and downs. All of the people that were part of getting me back. The training staff. We call them the purple-people eaters, but our players’ coaches who worked with me tirelessly. [Assistant coach] Nate Tibbetts.
“My family, my church family, my faith that I’ve been able and fortunate enough to lean on this entire time. All of that. The adrenaline, everything that’s going on. Much love to the Magic for sticking with me and the Magic fans were excited. Just trying to bottle all that up in one moment, it was surreal.”
Isaac’s return was 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.
He missed the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons and more than half of this one.
Isaac played three games with the organization’s G League affiliate, the Lakeland Magic, in the previous two weeks.
He admitted there were moments throughout the journey he doubted if he’d return.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t,” Isaac said. “It’s a part of it, coming back from an injury like this and taking as long as it did. There were days [when] I was like ‘I don’t know if I want to keep going.’ Then again, I have to thank Christ. Being able to go back to my faith and say ‘God has me on this journey for a purpose.’”
Isaac wasted little time making his presence felt on both ends of the floor.
His first possession back, Isaac caught the ball in the right corner and drove past Tatum to get into the paint but missed the layup over Jaylen Brown, saying he thought Brown was going to take a charge.
Isaac didn’t need much more time for redemption, making a 12-foot turnaround jumper over Brown on the next possession for his first points as part of his first-quarter playing time of 4:25.
“Shout out to coach Mose for drawing one up for me,” Isaac said. “It was supposed to be a catch and jumper but they played it well and it was just me and Jaylen. I was able to get to my turnaround. I really like that shot. When it dropped I was just like “thank you’. Just get that out the way.”
On the other end, Isaac toggled between defensive assignments, including guarding Brown and Tatum on certain possessions.
“That’s who he is,” Mosley said. “He’s a special defender. He’s adding those pieces offensively. He’s shown what he’s capable of doing.”
Isaac had 4 points and 3 rebounds in his first stint, admitting that “first wind” fatigued him to the point he could barely talk in the final minute because he was breathing so hard.
He looked more comfortable during his second round of playing time in the third quarter.
Isaac made a timely weakside rotation to get his first steal under the basket on a pass by Brown before knocking down a 3 on the other end to give the Magic a 71-68 lead.
The highlight sequence came a few minutes later.
Isaac made a corner 3 to put the Magic up 84-73 with 2:24 remaining in the third before picking Brown’s pocket for a steal on the ensuing possession and assisting Paolo Banchero for a dunk in transition.
“I can guard anybody 1-5,” Isaac said. “To take the challenge on the first night back and stick with those guys, I want it. I just want to continue to work and show what I can do. I want that to be my staple and that’s a big staple of our team — defense. I want guys to feed off me and be that battery pack to lead us to wins.”
Isaac, who played under a tight minutes restriction, finished with 10 points (4-of-7 shooting, 2 of 3 on 3-pointers), 3 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 assist in 10 minutes.
He subbed out with 2:04 left in the third, shortly after the assist to Banchero.
“Relief and peace,” Isaac said when asked what he felt after his time on the floor was over. “Like ‘God, you got me.’ He truly is faithful. I just want to thank Him because [Monday] night could’ve went so many ways. For it to go the way it did, I appreciate Him for it. There’s just a peace, there’s a relief to it. Let’s keep going.”
Magic players, coaches and basketball operations staff members wore Isaac shirts throughout Monday. Once the game was over and the team was back in the locker room, Isaac’s teammates soaked him with water.
There was a collective exhale for him.
“Being out that long, it can definitely be frustrating, and I know he probably felt like he could’ve come back sooner,” Cole Anthony said. “But he’s been super supportive of just the team as a whole. He watches all our games, just hits us when we’re playing well. He’s hit me when I’ve played [badly], trying to cheer me up. Just an overall great locker room guy and a pleasure to have as a teammate.”
There’s an understanding that not every game is going to look like it did against the Celtics.
It’ll take time for Isaac to get re-acclimated to the team and vice versa. Lineups and rotation patterns will change. Chemistry will need to be built.
“It’s going to look funky at times,” Mosley said. “I admit that and they understand that. We just have to learn to work through that process.”
But this is what Isaac and the Magic worked and hoped for, and they’re embracing whatever challenges are ahead of them.
“We’re barely scratching the surface of what this team is going to be,” Isaac said. “The more I get integrated, the more all of us just continue to learn how to play with each other, I really do believe the sky is the limit.”
The Magic (18-29) Wednesday will host the Indiana Pacers, who’ll be playing on the second night of a back-to-back after matching up against the Chicago Bulls in Indianapolis.
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.