Cavaliers-Magic preview: Why Cleveland could be in trouble against Orlando's rising stars

The Eastern Conference’s fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (48-34) and fifth-seeded Orlando Magic (47-35) meet in the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs. The two franchises have squared off in the postseason once before: in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals, which Orlando won in six games.

They still whisper the legend in Northeast Ohio: If you say the name “Mickaël Piétrus” three times in a mirror, he will appear behind you and drill another 3.

More series previews:
Celtics-Heat | Knicks-76ers | Bucks-Pacers | Cavs-Magic
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How the Cavaliers got here

By being wobbly, dominant, wobbly and verrrrry careful.

After playing (just over) .500 ball through 25 games with an underwhelming offense, the Cavs announced that point guard Darius Garland and power forward Evan Mobley needed surgery. They seemed poised to slip out of the playoff picture … until a run of superstar-level play by Donovan Mitchell, dominant interior play by Jarrett Allen and a damn-the-torpedoes 3-point-heavy attack landed them in second place in the East at the All-Star break.

That midseason form’s been in short supply over the past two months, though. With Mitchell missing 18 of the final 29 games due to injury, and with Mobley, Max Strus and key 3-and-D wing Dean Wade (among others) also missing time, Cleveland posted the worst post-All-Star record and net rating of any playoff team.

The vibes got even shakier during Sunday’s regular-season finale against the lowly Hornets. With a win potentially moving them up into the No. 2 seed — and into a Round 1 matchup with either the 76ers or Heat following the play-in — Cleveland not only sat a handful of rotation players, but effectively tanked the end of the game, playing without ball-handlers for the final six and a half minutes to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The loss pushed Cleveland into a 4-vs.-5 matchup with Orlando … this time, with boos raining down from the stands at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

Those boos will turn to cheers if the Cavs are able to dispatch the NBA’s fourth-youngest team and advance to Round 2 for the first time since 2018. But if their matchup manipulation results in another ignominious first-round exit, it could be an awfully eventful offseason in Northeast Ohio.

How the Magic got here

By beating you up, mostly.

I know: You can’t sum up a team in one play. But still:

The Bucks attack in the pick-and-roll; Gary Harris refuses to let himself get screened out of the play. His progress stopped, Patrick Beverley can’t kick it to Bobby Portis, because the healthy-again Jonathan Isaac is hovering like the Ghost of Christmas Future.

Beverley can’t loft it to Brook Lopez, either, because Jalen Suggs, eight inches shorter than Lopez but Eternally a Football Player, is fronting the post, burrowing into the redwood’s legs. While PatBev ponders, Harris swipes his dribble, sending the play to the floor; Suggs dives for the fumble and knocks it loose to Paolo Banchero. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward calmly goes coast-to-coast, big-dogging the smaller Lillard for a dunk.

That’s Orlando in a nutshell. Fifth in the NBA in steals, eighth in deflections, second in opponent turnover percentage, second in points scored off of turnovers, second in points allowed per possession and first in the share of their shots taken directly at the rim.

There’s skill here: Banchero’s an ascendant All-Star; Franz Wagner brings great playmaking touch to the 3; Suggs and Harris lead several capable catch-and-shoot marksmen; Cole Anthony, Mo Wagner (a committed irritant who will almost certainly be involved in extracurriculars in this series) and Joe Ingles lead a potent bench unit; etc. By and large, though, coach Jamahl Mosley has built the Magic into a team that wins by making things hurt.

The Cavs had a bad experience with a team like that last spring. Orlando aims to give them déjà vu.

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 11: Paolo Banchero #5 of the Orlando Magic drives to the net against Isaac Okoro #35 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second half of a game at Amway Center on December 11, 2023 in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Paolo Banchero and the Magic won't be an easy out in Round 1. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)


The two teams split their season series, 2-2.

It’s tough to know how much to take from the season series. Key Cavs reserve Caris LeVert missed three of the four, Mobley missed two, and Garland and Mitchell each missed one. Wade, who averaged 20 minutes a night against Orlando and guarded Banchero a lot, has been sidelined by a right knee sprain. Sam Merrill, who lit the Magic up for eight 3-pointers in January, missed the Cavs’ final three games after suffering a neck injury. Orlando had more or less its full complement of dudes; big men Isaac and Wendell Carter Jr. each missed a pair of the outings, though.

In a matchup between two of the NBA’s top six defenses, the 3-point arc promises to be a bellwether. The Cavs won the two games where they made more than 10 triples; the Magic took the two where Cleveland made 10 or fewer.

The Cavs added Strus and Georges Niang to make sure they didn’t run into the same lack-of-firepower issues this postseason that they did against the Knicks last year. The newcomers cashing out the looks that Danny Green, Cedi Osman and Co. clanked would go a long way toward getting Cleveland to Round 2.

Matchup to watch

Mitchell vs. Suggs

You don’t guard a player like Mitchell with just one person; dealing with an offensive force that potent is a full-squad proposition. That said: Only four defenders spent more time on Mitchell this season than Suggs, according to’s matchup data. And while Mitchell had his share of success against Orlando, headlined by hanging 35 in December …

… Suggs held his own, limiting Mitchell to 8-for-19 shooting (42.1%) from the field with six assists, four turnovers and two shots blocked across three contests:

Mitchell hasn’t looked much like his All-NBA self since suffering a bone bruise on his left knee that required platelet-rich plasma treatment. He averaged 9.3 drives to the basket per game after the All-Star break (down from 13.1 before), shot just 33.9% on pull-up 3-pointers and only dunked once. The Cavs hope that strong performances against Memphis and Indiana last week indicate that their No. 1 option is trending upward and ready to cook.

If he’s not — if Suggs, with miles of length behind him, can slow Mitchell down enough to dampen his production to the disappointing level of last spring’s Knicks series — then the Cavs could again find themselves stuck in the mud against a team that loves to get dirty.

Closing lineups

Cleveland Cavaliers
Honestly? I don’t know, and I think this might be the most interesting question on the board.

All else equal, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff would likely prefer to stick with his core four — Mitchell and Garland in the backcourt, Allen and Mobley up front — with Strus as the movement-shooting, complementary-playmaking, rebounds-bigger-than-he-is glue connecting them on the wing. But the double-big lineups have continued to struggle offensively this season, with the Cavs scoring just 111.3 points per 100 possessions in Allen-Mobley minutes — a near-bottom-five rate. If that continues, and if Cleveland can’t consistently generate points against that elite Magic defense, how long will Bickerstaff stick with it?

And if he splits Allen and Mobley up, and looks elsewhere to juice the offense — Niang, buyout-market addition Marcus Morris Sr., smaller looks with Strus or Isaac Okoro (who’s made offensive strides this season, but had been in a shooting slump before making three 3s against Charlotte) — will Cleveland have enough heft on the interior to hold up against a Magic team that finished seventh in offensive rebounding rate and eighth in points in the paint this season? (For what it’s worth, the Cavs prevented offensive rebounds far better when Allen played without Mobley than the other way around.)

After flunking their first postseason test, the Cavs spent big to retool their roster over the summer, and reoriented their shot diet during the season, to make sure they had new answers the next time around. Now we find out if they were the right ones.

Orlando Magic
Banchero and Franz Wagner will be out there, as Orlando’s top fourth-quarter scorers and playmakers. I’d expect Suggs will be, too, as the No. 1 point-of-attack defensive option against Mitchell or Garland — not to mention the Magic’s most dangerous spot-up shooter.

From there, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mosley mix and match: Anthony over Harris if he feels like they need another ball-handler and shot-maker; Carter Jr. if he wants to try to stretch the floor; Mo Wagner if it’s more of a “let’s send the bull into the china shop and see what happens” type of situation.

And I’ve got to say: The presence of Isaac intrigues. After playing just 11 games over the last three seasons due to leg injuries, he’s been one of the NBA’s most disruptive defenders during his curtailed court time — and, by the reckoning of defensive estimated plus-minus, at least, the league’s most impactful per-minute stopper.

The 26-year-old big man averaged 2.8 blocks, 1.7 steals and 3.1 deflections per 36 minutes during the regular season, holding opponents 6.2% below their average shooting accuracy when he’s guarding them — the third-largest differential among 310 players to defend at least 300 shots, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That includes a 52.7% opponent field goal percentage on attempts defended directly at the rim — 10th-best out of 259 players to guard at least 100 up-close tries, according to Second Spectrum.

Isaac only logged 32 minutes against Cleveland during the regular season; the Magic won those minutes by 25 points, with the Cavs shooting just 39.2% from the field, with more turnovers (15) than assists (14). His playing time has slowly increased over the course of the season, ticking up to 18.5 minutes per game over his final 15 games, 19.5 over his final 10, and 26 in each of his final two — including a start in the season finale against Milwaukee.

He’d provide another weapon against Cleveland’s bigs, a nuclear deterrent lurking in Mitchell and Garland’s eyeline, and — if he keeps knocking down 3s like he has since the All-Star break — potentially a welcome source of release-valve buckets. I don’t know if Mosley will go in that direction. It’d be pretty cool to see, though.


Magic in six. There’s a very large chance here that Mitchell pops for, like, 39 and 43 in the first two games while Orlando struggles to crack 90 points, and I wind up looking very foolish. But the combination of how rickety Cleveland’s offense has looked for two straight months, how snare-drum-tight Orlando’s defense has been for two straight years and lingering questions about just how well that core four fits together in a postseason context leave me a little cold on the Cavs. Youth typically isn’t served in the playoffs; big, tough teams with nothing to lose, though, sometimes are.

Series odds

Cleveland Cavaliers (-190)
Orlando Magic (+155)

Series schedule (all times Eastern)

Game 1: Sat., April 20 @ Cleveland (1 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Game 2: Mon., April 22 @ Cleveland (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV)
Game 3: Thu., April 25 @ Orlando (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV)
Game 4: Sat., April 27 @ Orlando (1 p.m. ET, TNT)
Game 5: Tue., April 30 @ Cleveland (TBD)*
Game 6: Fri., May 3 @ Orlando (TBD)*
Game 7: Sun., May 5 @ Cleveland (TBD)*

*if necessary