How the Magic unleashed a third-quarter onslaught on the Cavaliers

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ORLANDO, Fla.  — To outsiders, the Orlando Magic looked like they needed a passionate halftime speech Saturday afternoon, anything to snap them out of repeated turnovers. Donovan Mitchell, Jarrett Allen and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers had seized control of Game 4.

The circumstances looked dire for the Magic. Their All-Star forward, Paolo Banchero, and their starting point guard, Jalen Suggs, struggled to hold onto the basketball. They trailed by nine points, a seeming death knell against the Cavaliers’ highly touted defense.

Cue the inspirational words, right? How about something like the talk coach Herb Brooks delivered to Team USA’s hockey players when they trailed the Soviets after two periods in the 1980 Winter Olympics, as dramatized by Kurt Russell in the movie “Miracle”? Or how about something akin to Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale revving up his Hickory High players in “Hoosiers”?

The truth is, that reality rarely resembles the movies. On Saturday, no one within the Magic — not coach Jamahl Mosley, not his assistant coaches, not the players — resorted to theatrics. There were no raised voices, players said. No big speeches. And, most importantly, in a promising sign for such a young and inexperienced team, there was no panic midway through the 112-89 Orlando win.

Assistant coach Dale Osbourne coordinated the defense, calmly challenging the players to close off the paint and then close out on perimeter shooters. Assistant coach Jesse Mermuys guided the offense, stressing the value of protecting the basketball after 11 first-half turnovers.

“It wasn’t too intense,” Banchero recalled. “Guys weren’t getting out of character. I think everybody was just poised and ready to make the adjustment.”

Backup center Mo Wagner said the halftime scene in Orlando’s locker room was “a little quiet but not discouraged.”

“We were all locked in,” guard Markelle Fultz said. “We all understood the assignment of going out there and having a great start (to the third quarter).”

What happened next was stunning. You could watch weeks of NBA playoff games and never see a turnaround out of halftime as decisive as the tsunami the Magic unleashed on the Cavaliers on Saturday. That is not hyperbole. The Magic trounced the Cavaliers 37-10 in the third quarter. The series is tied 2-2.

“I mean, it’s obviously a great feeling, especially playing at home and everybody’s going crazy for every play,” forward Franz Wagner said. “So it definitely gives us another boost. I think the biggest thing for us is that we did a good job again this game to just stay focused and stay locked in.”

Franz Wagner led the way, with game highs of 34 points and 13 rebounds, but what the Magic accomplished in the third quarter wasn’t the product of one player. Everyone in the rotation contributed. Banchero continued to draw an inordinate amount of the Cleveland defense’s attention, creating opportunities for others. Suggs sank a pair of 3s, hounded Mitchell on defense and seemed to energize everyone — his teammates and the announced sellout crowd alike — when he jawed face-to-face with Darius Garland, resulting in technical fouls for both players.

Wendell Carter Jr. grabbed four rebounds in the quarter, and his physical play prevented Allen and Evan Mobley from collecting an offensive rebound during that stretch. Late in the period, Jonathan Isaac intercepted a pass by Georges Niang and, seconds later, drained a 3 that extended Orlando’s lead to 82-70 and left the crowd roaring.

“When J.I. pulled up on that 3 … I was like, ‘What is going on?’” Mo Wagner said. “If you make shots like that, with that type of swag, it’s really hard to beat that.”

“They were capitalizing off our missed shots and turnovers,” Niang said. “It kind of snowballed and you can’t let those quarters happen, especially in the playoffs.”

In the third quarter, the Cavs’ 10 points on 4-of-18 shooting tied for the lowest point total in a quarter by an opponent in Magic playoff history. It helped, of course, that Orlando limited itself to just one live-ball turnover in the quarter, preventing Cleveland from getting out on the fast break.

“We turned the ball over a couple of times and had a couple of silly breakdowns defensively (in the first half),” Isaac said. “But if you give us a two-and-a-half- or three-minute stretch where we can play the defense that we’re known to play, we can blow up the lead on any game.”

Carter said there were maybe two or three times during the regular season when Mosley let loose at halftime to rouse his players from lackadaisical play. One of those instances occurred in early March, when the Magic trailed at halftime 65-53 in Washington against the lowly Wizards. Fueled that night by Mosley’s strong words, the Magic recovered in the second half and won 119-109. Moments like that reveal why Mosley is a finalist for the 2023-24 NBA Coach of the Year award.

But Mosley also knows passionate halftime speeches should be made rarely, and Saturday was a time for calm. After all, effort wasn’t the problem.

Game 5 goes Tuesday night in Cleveland, where the Magic lost the first two games of the series and the Cavs fed off the energy from the crowd inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. In recent days, several Magic players said they learned about how intense the playoffs are from those two losses.

What unfolded Saturday seemed to indicate the Magic are growing. They kept their cool when they needed to most.

“This group showed a tremendous amount of poise to be able to bounce back and understand our defense carries us,” Mosley said.

They did more than bounce back.

Now, heading into another critical game, they feel confident.

“I feel like we’re in the better position out of the two teams right now,” Isaac said. “They’re going home thinking, ‘We have to take care of home court.’ So I think the momentum is in our favor, and we’ll go out there and shots are going to fall, and we’ll have a great game and we’ll win that one and come home and finish it off.”

Forgive Isaac if he sounds a bit overconfident. After Saturday’s third quarter, almost anything feels possible to him and to his Magic teammates.

(Top photo of Franz Wagner and Max Strus: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

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