Orlando Magic’s bench comes alive after rough road trip

Cole Anthony supercharged the Orlando Magic's bench in a dominant fourth quarter for a big win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Cole Anthony supercharged the Orlando Magic's bench in a dominant fourth quarter for a big win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

38. Final. 110. 69. 123

The Orlando Magic returned home to the Amway Center with some confidence in their starting lineup.

During the six games since Gary Harris and Wendell Carter returned to the lineup from their injuries and brief recoveries off the bench, the starting lineup with Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter were among the best groups in the league during that span.

The Magic’s 2-4 record since their first game together including a 2-3 record on the West Coast road trip seemed to fall at the bench’s feet. Cole Anthony struggled to find his shot and get himself going. Mo Bamba and Moe Wagner got beat up on the glass repeatedly among plenty of other players. The group seemed as though it had not found the quick rhythm the starting group had found.

Leads disappeared and momentum stopped leaving the Magic to scramble back and get back into the game. Orlando needed big games from everyone in the starting lineup and to run up that score just to have a chance.

The NBA can be funny like this though. The things you think you can rely on suddenly come up short and the players who struggled on the road find themselves at home.

The Orlando Magic’s bench struggled throughout their road trip. But the balance they showed saved them in a much-needed win over the New Orleans Pelicans at the Amway Center.

After struggling through much of the road trip, the Magic found themselves needing a boost from the bench. They found themselves in a deep hole and relying on the same players who struggled for much of their road trip.

Yes, Franz Wagner was brilliant scoring 13 of his 30 points in the second quarter, keeping the Magic afloat and seemingly single-handedly pushing the Magic briefly into the lead.

But it was the boost from Cole Anthony, who struggled a ton on the road trip, and the return of the highlight-creating Bol Bol that changed the tide in the fourth quarter.

The Orlando Magic defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 123-110 thanks to a renewed focus defensively in the second half but more importantly because of a focused and assertive bench unit that turned the tide and ran away in the fourth quarter.

The bench played so well, coach Jamahl Mosley let the bench finish the job, expanding the lead out to double digits in the final minutes rather than going back to the starting group. The much-maligned and criticized group still had one believer and they made good on that belief for the team’s 17th win this season.

"“The fact that coach even has that trust in the second unit, . . . it shows a lot of [coach Jamahl Mosley’s] trust in us as players,” Cole Anthony said after Friday’s win. “Anytime you put someone in to finish the game, it doesn’t matter who starts, it matters who finishes.”"

The Magic closed with the reserve group of Cole Anthony, Terrence Ross (eventually replaced with Gary Harris late in the fourth quarter), Franz Wagner, Bol Bol and Moe Wagner. That is hardly a lineup that has seemed dependable in this up-and-down season.

And aside from Wagner, perhaps the most consequential player on the team, all of those players have gone through struggles recently.

For Jamahl Mosley to trust them after those recent struggles and hold stalwarts like Wendell Carter, Paolo Banchero and Markelle Fultz out the entire fourth quarter of a close game speaks to how well they played and the faith Mosley had in them.

That was not necessarily something earned from their play on the West Coast trip.

The Magic’s bench scored only 34.2 points per game off the bench during the road trip. Playoffs of the Magic bench shot just 40.0 percent from the floor and 29.2 percent from beyond the arc.

Anthony, essentially the team’s sixth man, struggled a ton. He scored only 8.4 points per game and shot 33.3 percent from the floor and only 27.3 percent from beyond the arc. That is quite a letdown for a team that relies heavily on its balance to succeed.

The Magic needed to rely on its starters to win and compete in those games. And they rallied well to give the Magic a chance at a 4-1 road trip. But Orlando needs its depth too. That is how the team can survive rough patches and what will be necessary to win games against quality opponents.

To say the least, the starters did not have it Friday night.

The Magic were in a hole early. Their shooting did not return with their luggage from the West Coast trip — a surprisingly common phenomenon — and the long layover also seemingly knocked that strong starting group out of rhythm.

Orlando trailed by four points when Jalen Suggs came in for Franz Wagner for his usual first-quarter breather to run the second unit later on and trailed by 13 when he checked back in with 3:16 to play in the first quarter.

For the entire game, everyone besides Wagner had a plus/minus of at least -6 with everyone besides Gary Harris at -10 or worse. The starting group struggled with transition defense and settled for shots on the perimeter. There was not much force to the paint.

This is exactly the game where a bench can sink or save a team.

Repeatedly this is what the bench unit did. Spurred at first by Wagner’s aggression and the attention he soaked up, the Magic became a dominant attacking team in the second half.

Orlando scored 24 points in the paint and shot 22 free throws in the second half, a sure sign of the team’s aggression. That helped the starters get better traction.

But the fourth quarter was all about the bench group.

It was about Bol Bol finding space to attack off the dribble and keep the Pelicans completely off balance. His 12 points came in the exact way he built highlights and energy throughout the early part of the season. It lifted the crowd and energized the team.

"“Huge. It’s so huge,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Friday’s game. “Trusting those guys and they trust each other to dot he right thng, to play the right way, to give that spark and to be able to give the energy that we had out there. I thought it was great for these guys.”"

The real difference though came from Anthony, the central figure off the bench for Orlando.

He scored 22 points on 6-for-9 shooting. More importantly, he never settled. He made all eight of his free throws and two of his four 3-pointers. Four of his nine shots (and three of his six makes) came in the restricted area.

This is the Anthony the Magic need to see. Someone who is aggressive and getting downhill toward the basket. That is how he collapses the defense and sets up his jumper. He did not even need to do that. He was just able to put pressure on the paint.

That was the mentality the Magic needed throughout the game. Their starters, specifically Paolo Banchero, found that in the third quarter to stay in the game.

With the way the bench played, it was enough to zoom ahead, especially with Wagner playing at his All-Star best.

In the end, the Magic got 56 points off their bench. That is an unusually high number of course. But on a night when that strong starting lineup was not giving the team its normal lift, the bench did the heavy lifting.

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That is why Mosley decided to stick with them to finish the game. They earned that right to finish the game. And they put the hammer down to win once again.