The Lakeland Magic won their sixth game in a row on March 10, 2020, meaning it was time for head coach Stan Heath to pay up on his promise: steak dinners for everyone.
A day later, the NBA G League followed suit with the NBA in suspending its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the NBA, the G League didn’t resume play. And for last year’s Lakeland team, the steak never hit the table.
Fast forward 366 days to March 11, 2021. Heath doubled down on that promise. This year’s Lakeland Magic are NBA G League Champions.
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) March 11, 2021
“I owed last year’s team a steak dinner because they won six in a row,” Heath said. “Definitely, I’m going to get these guys a steak dinner as well, too. Hopefully the [Orlando] Magic will kind of help with my pocket books because they’re going to be a little bit empty. But it’s well worth it and well deserved.”
In a condensed, single-site season that featured 18 teams playing a total of 135 regular season games followed by an eight-team, single-elimination playoff in just 30 days, it was Heath’s team that not only won the franchise’s first title, but did it in the most Lakeland Magic of ways.
They played defense.
The Magic held the Delaware Blue Coats, the league’s fourth-highest scoring team, to just 34 first-half points in the 97-78 title victory. MVP-candidate Paul Reed scored 13 points, tying his season-low. Two-way guard Rayjon Tucker scored a team-high 20 points for Delaware, eight of which came in the fourth quarter with his team already down by as much as 20. Isaiah Joe, on assignment from the Philadelphia 76ers, had 18 points, nine of which came in that final quarter with the game seemingly out of reach.
“I do understand the sexy part of the game right now is the offense and scoring a lot of points,” Heath said. “But I got a little old school in me. I’m a little older and I do believe that, at the end of the day say what you want, scoring is great but you’ve got to be able to stop people and can’t give up easy baskets.”
It was just another dominant defensive outing for the Magic, one that exemplified the second-half spurt that got them to the Playoffs in the first place.
“If we didn’t have defense on this team, we wouldn’t have been in the Playoffs,” Heath said. “There were a lot of games where we were having a hard time scoring and having a hard time generating offense and we were able to pull games out in the end simply because we hung in there and made plays at the end to win.”
To start the season, Lakeland was stuck in the middle of the pack at 4-5. It had failed to hit 100 points in four games, and was averaging just 101.7 points per-game offensively. How can you not score efficiently enough in a sport that is so focused on offense now? Perhaps for the Magic, it was the fact that their only real threat to opponents that stood out was Mamadi Diakite, who was on assignment from the Milwaukee Bucks. After all, he was averaging 17.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per-game. Nobody else on the team was close to that, and who knew when he’d get the chance to return to the Bucks.
Or maybe it was the fact that the team hadn’t found its identity yet. With just six games remaining in the regular season, the clock was ticking. But Lakeland found the perfect time to gel offensively against the Blue Coats on February 26.
The Magic scored a then season-high in points and beat Delaware, 115-107, en route to a five-game winning streak that propelled them to a playoff berth. They scored 108.8 points per-game during the stretch while holding teams to just 95.6.
“Honestly, it was actually the Blue Coats game [when things started to come together],” said guard Devin Cannady. “We still had Mamadi Diakite with us and he was a huge factor to our success and to our winning. He helped us establish the culture that we created in this small period of time. But in that game, we started moving the ball. That’s when we started realizing that was part of our identity. We played tremendous defense this whole season. It was one of the best teams I’ve ever been on in terms of togetherness and playing for each other. That Blue Coats game got us going and we didn’t look back since.”
Cannady scored a season-high 24 points in the win. A few weeks later, he would drop 22 against the same Blue Coats team in the championship and becoming the first undrafted player in the G League to win Finals MVP.
It was his performance on that late February day that unlocked another dimension to this year’s Magic team. No, they didn’t have a superstar on their team like most others had. What they did have, though, was a group of players that knew their roles. After all, the only player to score 30 in a game the whole season was Andrew Rowsey in the season-opener. He was the team’s second-leading scorer with 13.9 per-game and after Diakite had left to join the Bucks with three games left in the regular season, it was up to the remaining guys to step up.
“The strength of our team is that there’s not one guy, there’s not two guys [that can score],” Heath said. “Every single time we’ve played there was a different guy that had a huge impact on how we played and how we won.”
Lakeland ended the season having seven different players lead the team in scoring in 18 games. Coming into the year, Heath was honest in the fact that he didn’t know if the team could make the Playoffs due to their lack of having a star player on paper.
“We didn’t really have the star power or the big-name guys you have on your two-ways or assignment guys that come with you,” Heath said. “So, there was a lot of uncertainty about how we were going to be. My thought was ‘Hey, let’s just be a good defensive team and then be a team that can learn to play together and share the ball. Be an overall team instead of, maybe, the superstar that dominates the play.’”
Heath expressed the feeling that the last four years “is a lifetime as a G League head coach,” and that having experience with players going back and forth on two-way contracts and assignments has become a strength for him and his coaching staff.
“You’re always constantly adjusting, but I think over time it’s become more of a strength not just to myself, but to my coaching staff,” Heath said. “They do a phenomenal job. [Assistant coaches] Johnny Taylor and Joe Barber, they do a phenomenal job with the player development. Then [General Manager] Anthony Parker and [Assistant General Manager] Adetunji Adedipe, they do a phenomenal job as well.”
If adjusting your lineup and playstyle after losing a player like Diakite in the middle of a season-saving winning streak isn’t enough to validate Heath’s point, the championship ring will.
The eventual (and certainly promised) round of victory steak dinners can prove it, too.