Cavaliers may need bold moves to beat the Magic in Orlando

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Cleveland Cavaliers’ goal of course is to win Game 6, not merely avoid further embarrassment on the road.

There are emotional and technical components to doing both — to emerging from the rubble of losing to the Orlando Magic by a combined 61 points in the previous two games in this series held at Kia Center, winning Friday and advancing to an Eastern Conference semifinal Sunday against the Boston Celtics.

Emotional letdowns, at least in the Magic’s building, have been harder for the Cavs to guard against than Franz Wagner. In Games 3 and 4, at key points when Orlando raised its level of play and the home crowd engaged, Cleveland’s players wilted, splintered and otherwise did not rise to meet the challenge.

Cavs players were blasted off their spots on offense, and defenders fell backward and to the side when hit in the chest by charging Magic forwards (and stout guard Jalen Suggs).

So before lineup adjustments and strategy are considered, the Cavs must carry themselves as though they are aware playoff series take place in two arenas, not just the comfortable confines of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, where Cleveland won a thriller of a Game 5, 104-103, on Tuesday.

“The biggest thing is just the effort we had tonight, understanding that those shots we hit, those runs we made, there’s no loudness, there’s nothing coming for us (Friday in Orlando),” Donovan Mitchell said Tuesday night. “We got to stick together as a group, and, you know, I think going down there and knowing what’s to come, knowing who they are down there as a team, we got to be locked in. We got to stay together. And I have no doubt we will.”



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What’s Mitchell supposed to say, as far as having confidence the Cavs won’t buckle again under the same conditions that crushed them in Orlando previously?

In Game 3, which became the Cavs’ most lopsided loss in playoff history (38 points), the Magic took their first lead of the series at 5:27 in the first quarter on a Paolo Banchero 3-pointer. Banchero drained another with 2:12 left to break a tie, and Orlando never trailed again. Cleveland’s deficit was 10 in about two minutes, 15 by the 9:24 mark in the second quarter and 21 with 4:11 left before halftime.

Mitchell and Darius Garland, the Cavs’ top scorers all season, each scored two points in the first. Garland finished with five(!), and Mitchell wasn’t all that much better with 13 points. Game 4 was much better, for a half, before Cleveland played one of its worst quarters in playoff history in the third. Mitchell was held scoreless in the second half. A nine-point halftime lead became a 21-point loss that wasn’t that close.

Garland was a totally different player to start Game 5 on Tuesday, with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting. He would be the first adjustment Cleveland can make this time, although it still tends to land more on the emotional side than the technical. Garland can carry the same shoot-first mentality into Game 6.

“The rim started looking big for me, a little bit,” Garland said after Game 5. “I think our guys are built for these moments.”

Mitchell dominated the fourth quarter of Game 5, scoring 14 of his 28 points with nine made free throws (he missed a 10th attempt). If the Cavs should get to the fourth quarter of Game 6 with a chance to win, the opportunity will be there for Mitchell to close, the way superstars with max contracts and All-Star nods that he has often do. It would be a repeat of what he did for Cleveland in Game 5, an effort coupled with Evan Mobley’s tremendous block of Wagner’s layup try with about six seconds left that won the game.

The other major adjustment the Cavs can make from Game 4 to Game 6 (since we are talking about what needs to be different for Cleveland on the road) was made Tuesday out of necessity.

Jarrett Allen, the Cavs’ center and most consistent player in the series, had a right rib “pierced,” according to a team source, by an elbow from Wagner in Game 4 and couldn’t play in Game 5.

When the Cavs are missing either Allen or Mobley from the starting lineup, they tend to play smaller, with four guards/wings around whichever big man is available. Playing that way for two months earlier this season when Mobley was out, the Cavs had the best record in the NBA and were the top 3-point shooting team in the league during that stretch.

It is no coincidence that Game 5, with a starting lineup of Mitchell, Garland, Max Strus, Isaac Okoro and Mobley, was the Cavs’ best of the series offensively. It’s easier for them to get to 40 3-point tries, there is more space for Mitchell and Garland to get into the paint and there is no pressure for Mobley to go to the corner and try to shoot a 3 — which there is when he is playing together with Allen. The bigger lineup necessitates one of the big men gravitates to the perimeter to create more space for the guards, and it isn’t going to be Allen.

The Magic didn’t adjust immediately, were confused by Cleveland’s floor spacing and were kept in it by a stellar performance from Banchero (39 points).

“The spacing is the thing that’s different, longer rotations,” Mitchell said. “Jonathan Isaac, for example, he’s coming from the corner now instead of helping off (when the Cavs have Mobley and Allen on the court). … It’s a game of inches. … Having a guy like Jonathan Isaac or Wendell Carter having to come from the wing or the corner, now you’re making that pass and catching them in the middle of rotations, it just changes the game.”



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Allen was back on the floor Thursday for light work at practice, but his availability for Game 5 is in question. He is averaging 17 points and nearly 14 rebounds, and certainly has done nothing to lose his starting spot. Also, for what it’s worth, when Mobley returned from knee surgery in February, the Cavs immediately re-inserted him into the starting lineup. They’ve shown no appetite for making the incredibly difficult decision of playing one of their starting bigs off the bench to maintain the style of play on offense that is clearly best for the team this season.

And yet, Allen’s injury presents an opportunity to do just that — at least for Game 6. If Allen is available to play Friday, the Cavs could easily say (and wouldn’t even have to make it up) that Allen is available but limited by injury. They could start Mobley and bring Allen in for him, with the possibility of pairing them together if the Magic properly adjust or if the fourth quarter calls for more defense than offense.

It would be a bold move, but nothing else the Cavs tried the last time they were in Orlando seemed to work.

(Photo of Jarrett Allen and Wendell Carter Jr.: Don Juan Moore / Getty Images)

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