Cole Anthony was back for the Magic Wednesday night, and life was good.
After missing the team’s last six contests (Magic went 0-6 in that stretch), Anthony returned to lead the Orlando Magic to a 108-103 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Orlando’s second-year guard scored 24 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and dished out 7 assists (1 turnover) in 36 minutes of play.
“Cole’s intensity, his energy, and his will to push guys,” Coach Mosley answered during his postgame conference when asked about what his team has missed with Anthony out these last two weeks. “The guys rally around him, and he supports them. He has a great impact (with us).”
A rather lifeless crowd at the Amway Center saw the Nuggets open the game on an 8-0 run. The Magic missed their first five attempts from the floor before rookie forward Franz Wagner got them on the board with a reverse layup from the right baseline nearly three minutes into the game.
It took Denver just five minutes into the contest to build an early double-digit lead on the Magic. Former Orlando lottery pick Aaron Gordon was active early, cutting baseline for a driving layup to begin the game, and putting his stamp on the opening period with a thunderous one-handed slam from the left baseline.
Aaron Gordon with a big flush against his former team pic.twitter.com/vfYmnwRVub— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) December 2, 2021
The Nuggets doubled-up the Magic after one quarter of play, with a Gordon tribute video that played during the first stoppage coming as the only thing of significance that happened. Orlando shot a dreadful 28.6 percent (6 for 21) from the floor in the opening period.
Orlando steadied themselves in the second quarter, thanks in part to a lift provided by Terrence Ross and Moe Wagner, who combined to score 11 points in the first half.
“It was huge for us, our ability to sustain it, and push some effort towards those (second half) runs,” Mosely said after the game when asked about the contributions his bench provided Wednesday. “Hold them (Denver) a little bit from going on those long runs. Our bench did a great job, I’m proud of those guys for sticking with it, staying together, and continuing to fight.”
“They did a hell of a job,” Wendell Carter Jr. added after the game of the bench unit. “Moe and Terrence did a fantastic job of keeping us in that game. They took their shots when they were there, they made those shots. They played some great defense as a group, that set the trend for the second half.”
The Magic team defensive effort collapsed leading into halftime, as Orlando allowed Denver to rattle off 14 points in the last three minutes of the second quarter.
The Magic began the second half playing with a ton more energy than they had to start the contest, jumping out of the break on a 12-3 run (which forced Denver to burn a timeout). The lackluster defense that had plagued them minutes earlier was replaced by active hands, communication, and help-side movement.
“The energy, and the attention to the physicality and the fight,” Mosley said after the game when asked about what changed in the second half. “Defensively, when you talk about two 20 point quarters (in the third and fourth quarters). We are going to continue to talk about that. On the defensive end, you give yourself a chance if you are making or missing shots, you have to hang your hat on the defensive end.”
A three-point field goal from the top of the key by Anthony cut Orlando’s deficit to seven points midway through the third quarter. An acrobatic driving layup - plus the foul - that Anthony was able to convert minutes later drew the Magic to within two possessions as the game made its way to the final twelve minutes.
An entertaining fourth quarter saw the Magic draw within a single point on a few occasions, knocking on the door while Denver responded with counterpunches of their own from Gordon and reigning league MVP Nikola Jokic.
Anthony tied the game at 99-99 with 3:55 to play, then tied the contest again the next Orlando offensive possession with a second consecutive mid-range jumper.
An F. Wagner step-back three off the dribble from the left wing gave the Magic their first lead with 1:40 left in the game, a lead they would not relinquish.
“I came off a pick-and-roll, and I probably should have passed it,” Wagner jokingly said after the game when asked about the shot he hit that put the Magic ahead. “They messed up their switch or something, and I was just open (and shot a three). It obviously felt really good, it was a close game, we needed a win really bad, and the crowd was into it - so it was a lot of fun.”
Gordon missed a corner three-point field goal attempt which could have tied the game with 1:20 remaining. After a Magic shot clock violation turnover on their next offensive possession, Denver again had an opportunity to tie the game, but Jokic was called for a traveling violation, and the Magic were able to finish the rest of the contest from there.
Jokic finished the game with 18 points (7-19 FGA’s), 15 rebounds, and 7 assists. The Nuggets were led by Monte Morris, who made 10 of his 15 attempts en route to 22 points.
In his return to Orlando, Gordon scored 17 points and grabbed 8 rebounds.
But the night belonged to Anthony, and Magic fans who finally woke up in the second half and were able to help to push their team to win number two at the Amway Center this season.
“When I first got out here for warmups, I was like ‘dang, no one out here wants to see us play’. But then I saw it fill up a little more in the second half,” Anthony said when asked about the noise and energy the crowd provided late in the game. “Energy was kind of dry in there (early), so I’m glad when we started doing something right, they wanted to show up for us. Shout out to the fans for sticking with us, I know it’s been rough. But shout out to them.”
The Magic will look to make it two in a row Friday night in Texas as they take on the 5-16 Houston Rockets.