It’s now been a few days since the confetti was swept up off the hardwood and some of the best ballers not in the best league in the world celebrated glory within a location that seemed unimaginable on March 11th, 2020. In the subsequent 365 days where the horrible and unthinkable have become unfortunately commonplace throughout both the United States and the world in general, it felt great to watch the joy that the Lakeland Magic felt when they became G League champions.
That victory came on Thursday afternoon when they defeated the Delaware Blue Coats 97-78 in the winner-takes-all championship game. As you could probably tell from that score, defense was one of the anchors behind their victory as they pushed Delaware to turn ice cold from the field as they shot 31% from the field and 21% from beyond the arc on 39 total attempts. At the same time that defensive unit was having a standout performance, 2nd year guard Devin Cannady was the anchor of the team’s offensive attack as he scored a game-best 22 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and one block on 9-17 from the field and 4-9 from beyond the arc.
The team’s victory over Delaware isn’t the only occasion where their success has been anchored by defense. In fact, great defense was the team’s M.O. from the jump as opponents averaged a league-low 101.5 points per 100 possessions against Lakeland. That league-best defense came through their rare ability to lock up opposing players both on the perimeter and within the restricted area. Their perimeter-defense was good enough to have the Magic only shoot 29% from beyond the arc, the lowest an opposing 3-point percentage has been in G League history.
If you watch enough basketball, you’d know that defenses sacrifice one area to defend another the best that they can. For example, the Raptors 905 hoarded the paint to stop scores in the restricted area, which ultimately allowed opposing teams to shoot 37% from beyond the arc. However, things were different for Lakeland as the presence of Bucks assignee Mamadi Diakite and 7’1 rookie Jon Teske was enough to have opposing squads shoot just 58% in the restricted area when they were going against the Magic.
That league-best defense was extremely vital to their operations as the Magic’s offense was below average during the regular season, as their average of 103.1 points per 100 only placed them 13th in the G League. That lower offensive production combined with their elite defense were the keys behind them finishing the season with a 9-6 record, enough to place them with the 6th seed in the East.
However, they entered the playoffs in a weaker position than during most of the season as stud rookie forward Mamadi Diakite, who was a key part of their attack on both ends of the floor, was recalled by the Milwaukee Bucks on March 3rd. With his departure just five days before the start of the G League playoffs, the Magic entered the most important point of their season without having a player that scored 14 or more points per game.
Despite the lack of a true dominant scoring threat, the Lakeland Magic didn’t have problems putting the ball through the net in their first two playoff games before they matched up against Delaware.
In a first round matchup against Erie, they put up a season-high in points in a 139-110 victory over the BayHawks. Obviously, this game was a complete change of pace for the defensive-minded Magic, who had five players score 17 or more points, with veteran forward leading the way with a career-high 25 points on 8-11 from the field, 5-7 from the free throw line and 2-2 from the free throw line. While Campbell’s five threes led the team, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t catch fire from deep. In fact, it was the complete opposite as they went 23-42 from beyond the arc, which put their three-point percentage at a jaw-dropping 55%.
Although Lakeland’s perimeter efficiency took an expected step back in the following game against Santa Cruz, it still was still at a level that would make Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson blush. In a 108-96 win over Santa Cruz, a 23 point performance by Robert Franks, wherein he shot 5-8 from 3, was the anchor of an offense that hit 17 of their 42 attempted long-range shots. In regards to perimeter defense, that was on point as they held the Warriors to shooting just 31% from 3, a full 6% regression from what they shot during the regular season. Lakeland’s ability to stop Santa Cruz’s perimeter offense had more to do with tremendous chemistry and all five men knowing where to be on the court than anything else.
Lakeland’s ability to overcome a lack of a #1 scoring threat and just being in total sync defensively despite only being together for a few weeks before the season started is an example of how great of a job that head coach Stan Heath did with this group of talented strangers. Honestly, the work that he did this year has to be the biggest accomplishment of his coaching career, which is saying a lot as he led Kent State to an Elite Eight appearance way back in 2002.
Over the next few weeks, months, and years, there’s going to be discussions among certain folks about where this Lakeland team will rank among the All-Time G League champions. Some of those folks will point to the madness of the one-and-done postseason and their lack of a dominant scoring threat as reasons why they should be lower on the list. Although those thoughts definitely have some merit, I still feel like that’s a false premise.
Honestly, there was a certain beauty to what Lakeland did this season. For one, the Lakeland Magic were able to use standout defense on the perimeter, restricted area, and transition to lock down some of the best offenses in the league. That concept combined with not having a player that anyone would put in MVP or even a conversation for being on an All-G League team when they won the title is just absurd.
Rather than that, they flipped the script by being a syndicate of misfits from other G League teams that didn’t decide to go to Disney World. Despite that outlaw status, an experienced coach, a castoff in his own right when you look back at his college career, was able to lead this group of men from different backgrounds to the promised land of their league that once didn’t seem obtainable.
And for that, I can’t think of anything to do but salute the 2021 Lakeland Magic for being your G League champions.