ORLANDO, FL — Magic forward Jonathan Isaac stood at the scorer’s table, made small talk with coach Jamal Moseley and calmly removed his shirt. He turned to the court, hung up his mouthpiece and walked onto the NBA floor to play his first game in over 900 days.
The long wait is over. Entering the game between a pair of Jayson Tatum’s free throws, the sellout crowd of 19,196 inside the Amway Center showed their appreciation with a standing ovation.
Isaac, 25, has not played an official NBA game since August 2, 2020, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a game in the Orlando Bubble. He missed all of the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons and half of the 2022-23 season before returning Monday night against the Boston Celtics.
In tight minutes restrictions, Isaac finished with 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting in less than 10 minutes of action as the Magic defeated the Celtics 113-98.
Isaac said there was a lot on his mind when he was checking in. He also admitted that there were occasions when he did not know if this day would come, but he relied on his faith in times of doubt.
“There were days when I was like I didn’t know if I wanted to continue,” he said. “But then again, I have to thank Christ. To be able to go back to my faith and say God put me on this journey for a purpose. I know I was made to play basketball. I was made to give God the glory at this point.”
Isaac was Orlando’s first sub of the night, and he checked in on his own – something that was done on purpose by Mosley so the audience could acknowledge the moment.
Isaac’s first touch of the night didn’t come long after check-in. When Orlando first entered the court, Isaac found himself with the ball in his hands.
Catch it along the baseline and try to drive on Boston’s Jaylen Brown. Isaac said he thought Brown would take over, but because he didn’t, it caused Isaac to be fouled trying to get a layup that failed to go in.
On the ensuing offensive possession for the Magic, Isaac was able to get a shot that fell – 13 feet directly above the Browns.
“Shout out to Coach Moss for building one for me,” Isaac said. “It was supposed to be really catch-and-jump, but they played it so well and it was just me and Jaylen. So I just said get something and I was able to reach my advantage. I really loved that shot. When I fell I was just like, ‘Thank you.’ Just Get that out of the way.”
Isaac’s first task took less than 4 1/2 minutes. Aside from jumping over Brown, he added a layup, but was only 2-of-5 from the ground.
He admitted that fatigue was a problem early on.
Isaac said, “This kind of first wind reached me. In that last moment I could barely speak, I was breathing so hard.” “But the second turn in the second half, those four minutes, I just start to loosen up and feel better.”
There was a noticeable difference in the second half when Isaac came back. He made a pair of 3-pointers and had 2 steals, including kicking off Paolo Panchero to get the win in his last game of the night. He was out for good with 2:08 remaining in the third quarter.
“I thought it was cool,” Mosley said. “I thought he did a great job playing with a level of poise. I think that was the importance of him getting his G League time. There was obviously a lot of emotion and he was right about that. I thought it was great the way he handled himself.”
Moseley and Isaac shared a moment before the match. Moseley sat at the end of the magic bench and called out to Isaac as he walked off the court. The two have a quick chat, during which Moseley expresses his joy at seeing Isaac.
Prior to playing two games in the Orlando Bubble, Isaac had not played since January 1, 2020, when he injured the same left knee. His last game at the Amway Center was on December 30, 2019, when he contributed 13 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks in a loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
The only Magic teammates still on the team who played in that game were Markelle Fultz, Terrence Ross, and Mo Bamba. Neither Ross nor Bamba watched Monday’s minutes against Boston.
“This night could have gone in so many ways, and for it to go the way it did, I appreciate it for that. So there’s peace, comfort to that, so let’s carry on.”
Cole Anthony, who spent some time on the floor with Isaac on Monday, said he’s so happy to see Isaac on the floor after watching him have to watch from the sidelines during his first and a half seasons with the team.
“Being out for so long it can definitely be frustrating, and I know he probably felt he could have gone back sooner,” Anthony said. “But he’s just been a huge supporter of the team as a whole. He watches all our games, and only hits us when we’re playing well. He snaps at me when I play poorly trying to cheer me up. Just a great locker overall guy in the room and a pleasure to have as a teammate.”
Anthony said he’d played a few pickup games with Isaac before, so it was nice to share an NBA court with him.
Magic sophomore forward Franz Wagner has a locker by Isaac’s side, and knows how much Monday night meant to his teammate. He was also excited about what Isaac Al Saleem could do for the young Magic team moving forward.
“I think even without some of the players, I think we’ve found some of our identity,” Wagner told ESPN. “I think our aim for this season has to be to keep working. We have new courses, we have to define all these things. But we have a lot of talent and a lot of size in each position.
“But more importantly, we just have great guys. Everyone cares about the right things. I saw that day when [Isaac] subbed in. We all want to see the next guy succeed. “
When Isaac was knocked out of the game for good in the third quarter, he briefly disappeared from the bench. When he returned, he sat on the bench and continued to cheer on his teammates.
When the night was over, his mates poured water on him.
“Relief and peace,” Isaac said when asked how he felt after his stint on the court ended. “Peace is like, ‘God, you got me.’ I appreciate that. He’s really honest. I just want to thank him. Because tonight could have gone so many ways and because it goes the way it did, I appreciate him for that. So there Peace, rest her, let’s get on with it.”