Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony work to fit in with Orlando Magic

Atlanta Hawks
Orlando Magic

There is something different about the Orlando Magic with Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony back in the lineup.

It may not be as loud as Paolo Banchero throwing a lob off the backboard to Markelle Fultz to finish with a one-handed jam as he did in the third quarter. It may not even be having that extra outlet to create and start the offense that they got from being able to put Cole Anthony into the game. His driving and finishing ability were refreshing for a team that has limited attacking options still.

There was an extra pep in the Magic’s step. And extra attention on offense and an extra zip on everything.

The energy was clear even through all the mistakes and all the adjustments. It was not perfect. But the team was still happy to see the two guards back. It is something the team can continue to develop and improve as they get more time on the court together.

There will need to be some adjustments and coming together still as the duo builds chemistry again. But the Magic seemed to have part of themselves back with the two guards on the floor, even if it is only a piece of the missing puzzle for this team.

The Orlando Magic continued to struggle overall and have a lot to work on. But Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony’s return proved to be a small boost to a hurting team. Now they just have to fully reintegrate with the team.

That was about the only positive vibe from the game. The fans welcomed back both Fultz and Anthony to warm ovations. But they clearly were not going to solve all the Magic’s multitude of problems, especially on defense.

The Hawks ignored any celebrations for the Magic’s returning players, just cruising to the basket, scoring off offensive rebounds at will and securing a 125-108 win at the Amway Center on Wednesday.

It was good to see these players back, but bittersweet in that there is still so much to build and develop. It is just a building block on the road back for this group as mildly encouraging as it is.

“I feel like my rhythm felt pretty good,” Fultz said after Wednesday’s game. “I didn’t feel like I missed a beat. I felt it was more our chemistry as a team and getting that bond as a team. All the injuries, not only myself, but everybody finding their role and finding their fit and finding how guys play. I feel like that’s our step now that I’m back on the court and Cole is back too is gelling together and figuring out what this guy likes to do best and how I can help them be a better teammate.”

The Magic were happy to have their two point guards back. But they all know it will take time for them to make the major impact everyone anticipated they would make for this team.

Fultz went past his original 15-minute limit to play 17 minutes, scoring eight points on 3-for-8 shooting with four assists. Anthony went past his original 20-minute restriction to play 24 minutes, scoring 11 points on 3-for-7 shooting, making all five of his free throws and grabbing four rebounds before fouling out.

It was hard for either player to have a positive impact on the game in the plus/minus column with the Magic playing uphill from the start. The Magic were never able to get their defense together. They were struggling to get stops consistently as the Hawks paraded into the lane for 62 points in the paint and onto the offensive glass with 14 offensive rebounds of 20 second-chance points.

On top of that, there was just the general issue of trying to integrate new players into the rotation.

That had its good moments and its bad moments throughout as players got used to the new rotations and the new reads that came from having these new players out there.

For the individual players, it was about the energy they brought immediately to the game. And the new ways they could attack. The hints were all there from their leadership to the ways they attempted to get some defensive and offensive pressure.

Markelle Fultz made a highlight early when he stole the ball from Dejounte Murray and dove on the floor to dig out the possession. Franz Wagner would eventually travel on the ensuing fast break, but this was a breath of energy the team needed.

Fultz could be seen helping teammates throughout as he sought his own rhythm. This is part of the leadership the Magic were missing without Fultz in the lineup for sure. There was a bit more of that calm and collectedness even as Fultz eased his way in.

“That’s who he is,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Wednesday’s game. “He brings guys together trying to make the right play. It’s going to take some time to get back in full rhythm with conditioning and everything else. I liked his energy and his passion for the game and what he is talking to these guys about doing. Those are good pieces for him tonight being back.”

Fultz played in short spurts as he played under a shortened minute restriction. But he seemed to thrive and find his control, especially as the game wore on. His finishing at the rim was far from perfect, but he was able to get to his spots and find his command of the game.

The pace the team played when he was there was also noticeable. It was noticeable with both Fultz and Anthony. The Magic played at a pace of 107.4 possessions per 48 minutes with Fultz on the floor and 107.2 with Anthony on the floor with the game played at a pace of 102. That is much faster than the Magic and Hawks are accustomed to, a sign of how much having these guards could help Orlando speed their game up some.

Fultz said it would take some time most likely for his teammates to get up to the same pace and pressure that he likes to play with and put on the defense. There is going to need to be some time to put all the pieces together.

Anthony too found his rhythm especially early in the fourth quarter as Orlando tried to make a late run to get back into the game. Anthony was part of the catalyst for that driving and finishing at the basket, including a monster slam.

Anthony said he had not played much since the injury and getting the all-clear. So he was getting his legs under him too.

Still, his impact was clear as he played his way through it.

“I think he has that intensity about him trying to get himself going, get something going,” Mosley said after Wednesday’s game. “That was the level of getting on the ball, attacking the rim and trying to find the right play. I loved his aggression when it came down to it. For us, it’s got to be continuing to put those pieces together as they work their way back in and out of lineups.”

That though is seemingly part of what the Magic are struggling with. They are constantly trying to put their pieces together — whether they are depleted or not. This is another thing the team has to put together at this point.

Even though both Fultz and Anthony are talented, they alone are not enough to fix the team’s problems. And even Mosley admitted the constant shifting of lineups and rotations has likely led to some of the team’s defensive and rebounding problems.

There is still a lot of work for this team to do to become the team it wants. Fultz and Anthony represent only pieces of that puzzle. It is now about getting them back into the group and making everyone comfortable again. That is part of the growing pains this team is going through.