The date was February 24. Lakeland had just lost its fourth game in five attempts, most recently falling to the Canton Charge, 101-90, to drop to 4-5 overall.
In a condensed, singe-site season where eight of this year’s 18 teams head to the playoffs after a truncated 15-game regular season, the Magic were jammed in the middle of being either an outsider or a contender. And with the season quickly coming to an end, Stan Heath’s team had six games left in 10 days to make a push.
They never hit the panic button.
“We never focused on ‘Hey, we got to win,'” Heath, now in his fourth year as Lakeland’s head coach, said. “We knew we had some games we needed to win, but it was more about just playing the right way. Getting the ball moving, sharing it, getting it to the next guy.”
Not only did Lakeland have games to win, they had the defense to get it done.
Over the next five games, the Magic went 5-0, gave up just 95.6 points per-game and set themselves atop the league’s best in defense, ranking No. 1 in defensive rating (99.4), No. 1 in opponent fast break points per-game (12.0), and No. 2 in points allowed in the paint per-game (44.7).
They officially clinched a playoff berth with a 114-94 win over the Iowa Wolves in game 14, improving to 9-5.
— Lakeland Magic (@LakelandMagic) March 5, 2021
“I think the one thing our team has done from day one [is] we’ve really set the tone defensively and have been a good defensive team consistently,” Heath said. “For the most part, I think we’re number one in most categories defensively. For us, it was building offensively. Like, how can we kind of mesh together.”
Milwaukee Bucks’ two-way player Mamadi Diakite, who had been with Lakeland due to Milwaukee’s G League affiliate Wisconsin Herd not playing this season, was recalled on March 3. He averaged 18.5 PTS, 10.3 REB, and was the team’s defensive anchor inside with 2.1 BLK per-game in 12 contests. So, when he left the team in the middle of a three-game winning streak, it was just the chance for Lakeland’s roster to show that it is more than Diakite that ran the show.
“It helped during that stretch we had [Mamadi] Diakite who was such a force for us, and he helped get us over the hump a few times. The last two games [with Diakite] were big games, we were able to pull together as a team.”
In 12 games with the @LakelandMagic Mamadi averaged:
18.5 PTS | 10.3 REB | 2.1 BLK | 2.1 AST https://t.co/o8yRaEDUn0
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) March 3, 2021
D.J. Hogg, who was averaging just 7.2 points per-game going into the team’s first game without Diakite against Salt Lake City, scored a season-high 20 points to lead the Magic over the Stars 104-84, as Lakeland moved to 8-5. Two days later against Iowa, Robert Franks dropped his own season-high 25 points in a 114-94 win.
“Maybe we don’t have the household names, some of the draft picks, some of the two-way big names that have played in the G League and have had time in the NBA,” Heath said. “But what we do have is a collection of guys who are very, very good role players. So, we’re playing our role and realizing ‘Hey, I don’t have to be a superstar tonight. I just have to be a good player that fits.”
If you take away Diakite’s games for Lakeland, the team only has one player within the top-50 in points scored per-game this season. Andrew Rowsey’s 13.9 points per-game rank him 5oth. To guard Billy Garrett, the fact that Lakeland doesn’t have a set “go-to guy” is what makes them dangerous.
“I think it makes it tough on the opponents honestly, because it makes it harder to scout,” Garrett said. “We got a lot of weapons, I’d say. And we come out and guard, so it’s hard to key-in on one guy because we got a lot of guys with well-rounded offensive games. So you can try to take away one thing, and that opens up something for everybody. I think that’s an advantage for us, honestly. It allows us to come out there and play good basketball. Whoever has got it going, has going to have it going… it can really be one through 10 on any given night.”
Though the team ended its season with a 122-100 loss to now-top seeded Raptors 905 on Saturday, five players scored in double-figures. The loss sets them at 9-6 for the year, and the end of the regular season does bring a sense of realization to Garrett and his teammates:
This thing has gone by fast. Like, 135 total games across the league in 30 days, fast.
“I was talking to one of my teammates before and was just like ‘Man, it feels like this whole thing has flown by,'” Garrett said. “We’ve had so much fun doing it so, you know, it’s been different and a little more taxing on the body, so you have to account for that. But it’s been a blast and is going by really fast. We’re looking forward to trying to finish strong and [leave] with a championship.”
Lakeland, the league’s sixth-seed, faces the third-seeded Erie BayHawks in the first round of the playoffs on March 8 at 6 pm/ET on ESPN News. Erie won the only game the two teams played against each other in the regular season, 94-90, back on February 18.
The 2020-21 NBA G League season will feature an 8-team, single-elimination Playoffs that starts on Monday, March 8.