The Orlando Magic won a game. It was not pretty, but it was something the team needed, no matter how it came.
A young team losing a 23-point lead as they try to close a game frenetically is not such an odd thing. Young teams have no clue how to win games. As the game gets tighter and the clock ticks down, as opponents get desperate, they struggle to get to the finish line.
Some might characterize this as tanking, but really it is learning. These teams still have to find a way to succeed and push through it, but hard losses can be — and must be — learning experiences for them. Something they can grow from and learn something about how difficult the NBA can be.
More than anything, executives for the teams of these young teams want to see how these young players respond to these stimuli and respond to these situations. They may not be winning much now, but they are not planning to be bad forever.
The seeds of who they will be and what they want to become are built now. It is not some “wins for culture” thing — the pilloried line that Frank Vogel gave in his final year as the Magic won enough games to fall out of a tie for the fifth pick that became Trae Young.
This is where Cole Anthony stepped in.
Cole Anthony stepped up when the Orlando Magic needed him to deliver a win and continues to exemplify the kind of growth the Magic are looking for.
In the fourth quarter of Monday’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Dennis Schroder picked him apart, turning a six-point deficit into a comfortable win for the Lakers. Anthony was exposed to a veteran dominating the end of a game and closing it out.
The goal for him then became to learn from that experience in the next close game he played.
So with the Cleveland Cavaliers beating down the doors on that 23-point lead, the Orlando Magic repeatedly turned to their rookie point guard to get them through. And he delivered with poise, toughness and grit.
On three occasions in the fourth quarter, Cole Anthony drove headfirst into the paint, engaged a shot-blocker in Jarrett Allen and finished over him. None more huge than his double-clutch layup with 40 seconds to play that broke a 104-104 tie.
Anthony finished the game. And this is exactly who the Magic want him and their team to be one day.
“I love it,” Anthony said after Wednesday’s win. “That’s the best time. They call that crunch time. I want the ball. I’m going to get it for the team.
“I felt that the one thing that was different was in the fourth quarter, when it was crunch time and your team needs to be the best and make the right play, I felt like I needed to have the ball in my hands.”
Anthony has shown his toughness throughout the year. His game-winning basket against the Minnesota Timberwolves showed his willingness to step up in big moments. He was never going to shrink from big moments.
But Anthony was not supposed to be in the game at that point. He was only in the game because Terrence Ross fouled out. And he was not supposed to get the ball in that situation. His shot was a product of a scramble off a missed free throw that Anthony grabbed the rebound for and took the shot because of how little time there was to set something up.
This moment was truly about a rookie coming into his own and showing the development and toughness he will need to make it in this league and potentially become a special player.
He has improved as a driver and finisher at the rim. He is learning how to manage a team better. And at the end of the day, he is competitive and doing everything he can to win — whether it is hitting the game-winning shot or taking a charge.
Anthony is the competitor they imagined and now the skills are matching that fire he has shown.
This is who the Magic want to be. Unafraid of the big shot and resilient enough to bounce back from adversity.
“His career, he’s been a scorer,” acting coach Tyrone Corbin said after Wednesday’s game. “He’s a point guard that can score the ball. He’s learning a lot of lessons this year. He wants those moments. He wants to take the big shots. He has the capabilities to make big shots in big moments. He’s not afraid of those moments. That’s a great trait in this league. His maturation or his learning when to take the shot or make the pass, he’ll get better at that.”
This is about player development and growth. A rookie alone is not going to change this team’s culture significantly. There is still a team to surround him and their development and progress matter too.
What the Magic have been focused on is how to make their young players better and to see growth and progress. The team wants to see these players lay the foundation for their future team. But more importantly, they want to learn how all these pieces might fit together in the end.
Anthony had a lot to prove this season. He had a rough year at North Carolina that saw him tumble from a top prospect into just outside the Lottery. Everyone always knew he had the scoring talent, the question was whether he could develop into a organizer and point guard and shoot with efficiency.
There is still a lot of work to do on both fronts, although he has greatly improved in both since returning from his rib injury. The growth he has shown is meaningful.
“Cole is a gamer,” Gary Harris said after Wednesday’s game. “He wants the moment. He wants the ball in his hands and wants to make a play. He is a very good player. But he is going to be a very good player for a long time in this league. I’m looking forward to watching him grow. He has a lot of talent. He has a lot of camaraderie. He is a great team guy. He brings everybody together in the locker room. He talks, he communicates. He has all the qualities to be a great point guard.”
Anthony still makes his share of rookie mistakes — Corbin said Anthony waited a hair too long on the press, allowing the trap to get to him instead of attacking it consistently. Anthony himself admitted he disliked how he played in the first three quarters, committing an unusual number of turnovers for him during this stretch of play.
But the attitude Anthony has brought to the team, from the very beginning, has been exactly what they want to see. And how he has played lately is exactly how they want to play.
Anthony is unafraid and ready to rise to the moment. It is something the team is aspiring to be as they finish the season.