Cavaliers face franchise-altering crossroads in Game 5 Matchup against Orlando Magic

Can the Cleveland Cavaliers regain momentum in a critical Game 5?
Orlando Magic v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game One
Orlando Magic v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game One / Jason Miller/GettyImages
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Game 5 between the Cavaliers and Orlando Magic is the biggest game for the Cleveland franchise since LeBron James left in the summer of 2018.

The Cavaliers had some rebuilding years and were able to draft talented prospects Darius Garland and Evan Mobley had very successful starts to their young careers. The Cavs made a trade for Jarrett Allen back in 2021 that turned out to be a steal as he has developed into one of the league’s better centers, even making the All-Star team in the 2021-2022 season. Then, they made their big splash, trading for Donovan Mitchell late into the following offseason. The Cavaliers had switched gears officially from rebuild to playoff team with title aspirations. Donovan Mitchell would have the best year of his career in his debut season for the Cavs, making the All-NBA Second Team. Everything was going great…until it wasn’t.

In their first playoff appearance since LeBron’s departure, the Cavaliers would lose decisively to the Knicks in a five-game series. The Cavaliers would then have a rocky 2023-2024 series filled with injuries and questions about the chemistry between the Cavaliers stars. They would still manage to win 48 games and secure the fourth seed in a weaker Eastern Conference. Although head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cavaliers won’t officially admit it, it was quite clear they tanked their final regular season game to stay in the fourth seed to get their desired opponent, the Orlando Magic.

The Orlando Magic are a young team with little playoff experience. They have a limited offense with poor outside shooting. On paper, it looked like a matchup the Cavaliers would exploit with their strong interior defense and playoff-tested star in Donovan Mitchell. For two games it looked like the Cavaliers made a great choice and got out to a 2-0 series lead while never trailing for the entire two games. The Cavaliers' defense was suffocating the Magic offense, as they shot an abysmal 32 percent and 36 percent from the field in games one and two, respectively. The Cavs protected the rim with strength and made Orlando shoot from the perimeter, an area of weakness for the young squad. But, then when the series went to Orlando where everything shifted.

In Game 3, the Orlando Magic would dominate the Cavaliers from wire to wire, winning the game by an astounding 38 points. The Cavaliers didn’t match their effort as the Magic were at home and much hungrier down 0-2. On top of that, the Cavaliers shot a terrible 8-of-34 from behind the arc. The hope was that a brutal blowout like that would be a wake-up call to the team in Game 4. For a half, it looked as though it was - the Cavaliers were leading 60-51, and Mitchell looked up to the challenge with an 18-point first half.

Then, in the third quarter, the wheels completely came off. The Cavaliers were outscored 37-10 in the third quarter, and 61-29 in the second half. The Cavaliers showed no fight or urgency as the Magic steamrolled them. Even more concerning, Donovan Mitchell was held scoreless for all 17:25 of his second-half minutes and committed four turnovers. There was no leadership from the star players and no spark from the bench. It was an all-around surrender from the entire team. This Game 5 is a crossroads moment for the Cavaliers at an extremely high level, everything about their future is in doubt based on these next few weeks.

What is at stake for the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Most people around the league already feel that it is more likely than not that Donovan Mitchell will not be returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers if they flame out in the playoffs again. However, plenty of Cavalier fans were optimistic that Mitchell would want to sign an extension with the team this summer. The recent slide by the Cavs has fans questioning the chances of his return in a Cavs jersey. The Cavaliers need to come out strong in Game 5, take the series lead, and build confidence around this team again so that they can make a deep playoff run.

J.B. Bickerstaff will almost certainly be gone if the Cavaliers cannot rectify this series. Bickerstaff was on the hot seat after looking unprepared for the 2023 playoffs. The Cavaliers' road trip to Orlando certainly did not help his case. The Cavaliers showed none of the winning formula in their two road playoff games against Orlando, and now Bickerstaff remains winless as the Cavs coach in playoff road games. Bickerstaff seemed to have no adjustments to counter the Magic's second-half momentum, had late rotations and relied on isolation basketball too often. In Game 5, Bickerstaff cannot allow the ball to stop moving and freeze the offense.

The question marks don’t end at Bickerstaff and Mitchell, all of the Cavaliers' key players’ futures will be in question if they fizzle out in Game 5 and the rest of the series, besides Evan Mobley. Darius Garland had a down year averaging only 18 points on 44 percent shooting, and his fit next to Donovan Mitchell has been questioned during their entire two-year tenure together. Garland is 6’1" and Mitchell is 6’3", which is a fairly undersized backcourt that can face limitations defensively. On top of that, the pair seem to have more success when they are separated, as the two highest-rated Cavalier lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together do not include both Mitchell and Garland in either of them.

Overall, Garland has struggled this postseason and does not have an impressive playoff resume in his nine games with the Cavaliers. He is averaging 16.8 points and 5.4 assists per game on 43 percent shooting and 3.3 turnovers per game. Ultimately, Garland is a talented 24-year-old guard who has already made an All-Star team and can be given some grace for this season after the injuries he endured. But the Cavaliers front office will be facing a lot of pressure to address his future with the Cavaliers if his struggles continue into Game 5, especially with his contract set to earn him $44 million in the final season in 2027-28.

Jarrett Allen’s future will likely be questioned with a short exit from the postseason. With Evan Mobley as the team’s only untouchable asset who is under contract, the Cavaliers' front office may want to move on from their other big man Jarrett Allen. Allen came out strong in the first two games averaging a playoff-high 19 rebounds per game, but his production fizzled when they went to Orlando. Jarrett will need to get back to his dominant ways on the glass in Game 5 if he wants to further convince this franchise that he can work alongside Evan Mobley in the future.