Cleveland Cavaliers revert to old habits in historic loss to Orlando Magic in Game 3

Cleveland Cavaliers v Orlando Magic - Game Three
Cleveland Cavaliers v Orlando Magic - Game Three / Rich Storry/GettyImages

121. 38. Final. 83. 156. Cavaliers vs. Magic Game 3 2024

As the Cleveland Cavaliers attempt to redefine their playoff reputation, they wilted in an opportunity to gain a 3-0 series lead over the Orlando Magic as they set a franchise record for the worst playoff loss ever.

In the opening minutes of the game, the Cavaliers seemed to be off to another hot start. They took the first lead of the night, and Darius Garland got on the scoreboard immediately. If Cleveland could get on a roll in Orlando, they would have all but sealed the deal in the first round. To this point, the Cavs had never trailed at any point in the first two matchups, owning accumulative 24-point and 21-rebound advantages. After their historic loss to the Magic in Game Three, the Magic now hold a 14-point lead and only trail the series rebounding total by two boards.

While the end result was disheartening at best, the Cavaliers were not without solid performances on the night. Jarrett Allen led the team with 15 points and eight rebounds with an efficient five-of-six from the field. Still, even Allen contributed to the blowout by reverting to his old ways that plagued the Cavs in their last series against the New York Knicks.

The good news is the Cavs still hold a 2-1 series lead, and there is no cause for panic. Cleveland will have another chance to put the Magic on the hot seat again with a win in Game Four. Once the Cavaliers realized they were outmatched mentally, coach J.B. Bickerstaff pulled the starters early and let the Magic run up the score. Their focus now shifts to the fourth match, but they must address their sudden regression to avoid a worrisome tie heading back to Cleveland.

Old habits die hard, drag Cavaliers down with them

Jarrett Allen's solid scoring hardly put a dent into the Magic as the Cavaliers were lackluster at best on defense and rebounding. Though Evan Mobley ended the night with three blocks, the rest of Cleveland's squad showed no signs of energy or effort defensively. Even the Cavaliers' best perimeter defender Isaac Okoro made hardly any impact in his 16 minutes of time on the court.

When the Cavaliers did string together a solid defensive possession, typically thanks to Mobley, they repeatedly stood and watched the ball go into the hands of a blue jersey. Only Allen and Donovan Mitchell recorded at least five rebounds, allowing the Magic to grab 14 offensive rebounds that led to 22 second-chance points. Last postseason, the Cavaliers' nonexistent energy on the boards allowed the Knicks to bully them physically and dig their grave with endless second, third and fourth chances.

Much of Mobley's time on defense was spent roaming the perimeter once Orlando started hitting from deep. He was pulled out to the arc, rarely able to get back in time for rebounds without leaving his man open for a kickout from the Magic ballhandler. Orlando's lead man Paolo Banchero grabbed 14 rebounds, seven of which were offensive. In the first two games, the Cavaliers forced Banchero into numerous mistakes and turnovers. In Game Three, Banchero had a near-perfect night with zero turnovers and four-of-nine from three-point range.

When Mobley cannot roam the paint, the Cavaliers need to employ their wings Max Strus and Isaac Okoro to make hustle plays and steal away extra possessions from the Magic. They have shown the athleticism, timing and strength in the past to grab long rebounds, but neither was anywhere to be seen.

The lack of energy from Okoro and Strus was wildly uncharacteristic, though the lack of scoring punch from both has been a worrisome trend. Strus looked winded, never finding a rhythm. Magic forward Franz Wagner was guarded by Strus for most of the series thus far. In Game Three, Wagner took full advantage of his 6-foot 10-inches height advantage over Strus. No matter how close his defender stuck to him, Wagner seemed unphased as he knocked down an efficient 6-of-12 field goals and dished out eight assists.

Although Cleveland's wing depth has showcased valuable defense all season, their limited size has cost them over the year. Okoro's grit often makes up for the lacking stature, but the Magic were able to isolate their target from any getting any help and punished the Cavs in the mid-range.

Offensively, the Cavaliers seemingly gave up before halftime once the Magic gained any sizable lead. Their bench has yet to offer any meaningful production, and even two of their starters are relatively non-factors so far.

Cleveland's offense has been flawed all series, and the Magic are taking advantage

In total, the Cavaliers bench has recorded 24 made field goals over three games. Georges Niang was held scoreless in Game Two, hitting his first three-pointer of the series in Game Three. Okoro has held his own defensive and fulfilled an enforcer role for the Cavs, but his offense has not been a focal point of Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff's gameplan at all.

Last year, Okoro was played out of the starting lineup as the Knicks ignored him entirely on the perimeter. This season, Okoro has emerged as one of Cleveland's best bench shooters, but Bickerstaff has yet to run plays designed to open up a shot for the young wing often at all. As a result, Okoro has not been able to find a rhythm and gain consistency in his shot.

The starting lineup undoubtedly looks more cohesive than last year, but clunky stretches still drag the Cavaliers' efficiency down. While the Cavs earned praise for their hardened defense that kept the Magic below 90 points in the first two games, their offense was far from impressive or enlightening.

Max Strus has fallen into slumps in the postseason before, typically dipping below his regular season shooting splits. Through three games, he has averaged seven points on 20 percent from deep. It is not dooms day when Strus is subpar, but he has not been able to ignite a fire when the Cavs need an extra surge.

After a tumultuous regular season, point guard Darius Garland has only shown flashes of an improved postseason mentality. He has been more physical and unafraid, most notably with his Game One shoulder bump against the latest Cleveland villain Moritz Wagner. Garland's shooting has improved up to 46.2 percent on three attempts from range per game, but his overall volume and use in the offense have heavily decreased. Confidence has only come in moments for him and is not a constant presence.

In his worst game of the series, Mitchell addressed a plethora of media questions, acknowledging the Cavs' inability to convert their three-point opportunities. He took responsibility for his own miscues and the Magic throwing the first punch with no response from the Cavaliers.

Regardless of a lifeless night, Mitchell's mindset seemed clearly set on adjustments for Game Four. He continually noted that they will be prepared for how Orlando forced the Cavs into a deficit on Saturday. Mitchell also commented on the offensive rebounding woes, citing them as a clear indicator of their wins or losses.

"We set the tone. We did it for two games, and we didn't tonight. And you see the differences when you look at the wins and loss column. I think we gave up nine [offensive rebounds] in the first quarter. Like, it sets the tone. We weren't doing that back at home."

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell's comments highlight the value of Cleveland's initial attitude entering the night. The Cavs threw the first punch in the first two games, but they seemed content with below average in Game Three. Mobley's spirited defense and slick cuts to the basket were the only high points for the Cavaliers.

The Cleveland Cavaliers were reminded of the feeling they shouldered against New York one year ago. As much as they learned, the aftertaste of that loss still lingers in the wake of their embarrassment. If the Cavaliers take the loss in stride and return fire in Game Four, they have displayed the fight needed to win. They just have to put it together again.

Game Four will take place in Orlando, Florida at the Kia Center on Saturday, April 27 at 1:00 pm Eastern Time. Following Game Four, the teams return to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Tuesday, April 30 for another night of Cavaliers playoff hoops in front of a ruckus home crowd.

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