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Orlando Magic vs Cleveland Cavaliers Playoff Preview



ORLANDO — The drought is officially over as the Magic are headed back to the playoffs after not having been since the NBA Bubble -- first time under newly extended Head Coach Jamahl Mosley. It took an unnecessary sweat fest at the conclusion of the regular season for Orlando to clinch a playoff berth amid a three-game losing streak that plummeted in the standings to facing the flames of a potential play-in game.


"You talk about a group that's been up, been down, battled back, resilient -- you say all the cliche words but they showed it, they proved it. Big stakes, they took it in their own hands," said Jamahl Mosley following the win against the Bucks, locking the team into a four-five seeded duel against the Cleveland Cavaliers.


There remains a level of familiarity and friendly contempt between Jamahl Mosley and Cavaliers Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who have not only been long-time friends for over twenty years, but their families also spent All-Star break together. However, one doesn't view the other as in the same weight class, as J.B. Bickerstaff notably tanked his final game of the regular season to avoid the two seed, drawing the inexperienced Orlando Magic.


Bickerstaff has since spoken to Mosley over the phone Sunday night with both agreeing to remain out of contact until the conclusion of the series as both will go out and "try to kick each other's butt".


Both teams split the season series two games each this season. Of the four games between the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers, both teams were never in optimal health. Markelle Fultz did not appear during any game vs Cleveland this season while both Jonathan Isaac and Wendell Carter Jr missed a pair of games.



There have been subtle shifts within both teams that will have a tangible impact on the mechanics of the matchup -- Gary Harris, who also missed a game against Cleveland, has since moved to the starting two-guard spot.


Here’s a preview of the Saturday afternoon showdown that will tip off the 2023-2024 NBA Playoffs.


Orlando Offense



How has Orlando attacked the Cavaliers' Defense:

The Cavaliers bank on stagnating offenses and bleeding the shot clock. Their defensive structure starts with the twin towers: Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley forcing inefficiency and bad shots — and that means switching almost everything on and off the ball. Keeping assignments in front is paramount to their scheme in order to flatten out actions, keep things strictly an east-west endeavor instead of north-south, and force the other team to rely on shot creation.



Jamahl Mosley's number one play to mitigate this has been Inverted Screens (guard or wing setting a screen for a big). Throughout the four-game series against Cleveland, Paolo Banchero converted eight field goals for a total of 18 points off inverted screens. On multiple occasions per game, Orlando would deploy Gary Harris, Cole Anthony and even Anthony Black as the screeners in order to leverage mismatches.




When the Magic would set the inverted screens near the three-point line, the Cavaliers bigs (Tristan Thompson and Evan Mobley) would go under allowing first-time All-Star Paolo Banchero enough time to reload into long-range triggers from downtown.



The inverted screeners sway from a multitude of guards setting the screen for Banchero but are communicated from the sideline between both him and Jamahl Mosley -- typically during free-throw routines from the opponent. Here, Mosley signals to Banchero the screener he wants to be on the following possession.


Prior to coming to set the inverted screen, Anthony Black tells Goga Bitadze to "clear out" allowing Paolo a clear runaway to drive downhill. Following the Black screen, Darius Garland switches to blitz momentarily in order to allow Banchero's defender to fully come off the screen. But Wade becomes the trail-man as Paolo uses his frame to muscle his way for a three-point opportunity at the charity stripe.


"He's tough. He's an All-Star obviously, makes tough shots, is physical. We just gotta make it tough on him. We gotta lot of good defenders we're gonna put on him, and just make it as tough as possible for him" said Cavaliers guard Max Strus.





Orlando's Struggle Offensively vs Cleveland


Paolo Banchero on his own can definitely provide shot creation, but if the Cavaliers force the Magic to rely primarily on their shot creators — instead of establishing their usual rhythm and flow on offense — it will be a short series.


While Orlando has utilized inverted ball screens to create dilemmas for defenders --presenting multiple options that challenge defenders to make choices, it seems Franz Wagner has been the odd man out. Wagner's offense heavily relies on pressuring the rim via euro-steps and slithering into the teeth of defense with an array of finishes at the cup.


Cleveland's defense has forced Orlando's other star into fits with little help from Jamahl Mosley to relieve the pressure off him to allow easier runways to the rim. Wagner is shooting just 39.3 percent from the field against Cleveland in four games combined. To make matters worse, the Magic have only utilized his most effective play (Horns Chin DHO) once throughout the season vs the Cavaliers. Franz converted that attempt.




With the lack of respect for surrounding shooters on the floor, Cleveland's defense shrinks the floor entirely providing little daylight as he dribbles into a sea of defenders on downhill drives. On the following drive to the basket, Franz Wagner gets blitzed from the nail by Tristan Thompson in addition to more traffic with Georges Niang stationed at the dunker-spot raising his arms vertically.





Franz has missed a total of nine layups on downhill drives -- all of them being in isolation. Though he’s capable of throwing down a windmill in transition, in a half-court setting Franz rarely utilizes dunks to cap off a drive which often leaves him taking contorted, contested layups against the league’s best rim protectors. Wagner deserves credit for not being afraid to challenge opposing bigs, but he gets stuffed a lot. Opponents have blocked 77 Wagner shots this season, 13th most in the league.





To mitigate this, Jamahl Mosley utilized a play he created this season called "Horns Chin DHO" to allow his budding star alongside Paolo Banchero additional room to flourish around the rim despite the spacing problems Orlando has been tasked with throughout Wagner's tenure. The play starts in Horns alignment and progresses into Franz Wagner setting a down-screen for the ball-handler. The play flows into a dribble-handoff between he and the center allowing him to get downhill with ample space to finish at the cup. Adding this play back into the playbook could go a long way against the twin towers Cleveland has at their disposal.



 

Defending the Cavaliers Offense


The Cavaliers offense, much like Orlando's, revolves around their stars: Both Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland being the primary offensive threats the Magic will have to pay extra attention to with Jalen Suggs and Gary Harris drawing the assignments. Cleveland however is unique in the sense that the presence of their bigs is felt offensively as well and can't be ignored. Both Mobley and Allen operate as screeners in their Double-Drag (two consecutive ball screens set by trailers who run into the screen from an angle perpendicular) set that has exploited Orlando's defense in a multitude of ways this season with Mitchell as the ball-handler.




After being torched by the same set Orlando flipped their coverage in game three by honing back into their philosophy of denying middle penetration through “ICE/Weak” coverages. However, Donovan Mitchell being the microwave scorer he is found counters within the same play to continue feasting. As opposed to dribbling past both screeners, he started rejecting the second screen with Jalen Suggs chest-to-chest with him near half-court. Both Mitchell and Allen free-flow into a step-up screen allowing him enough space to cash in from downtown.



Nearly a quarter later, the Cavaliers run the same play, and this time Orlando has everything blockaded. Somehow, Donovan Mitchell snakes through both Suggs and Moritz Wagner and euro-steps around Franz to finish with his right.




Both guards Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell are averaging over 26 points per game in their three games against Orlando on over 44 percent field goal percentage. Orlando did manage to stop the bleeding on this play by going back to their principles of forcing turnovers. Darius Garland is coming off the double-drag this time with Mitchell operating as the screener and gets intercepted by Paolo Banchero causing a highlight reel alley-oop finish on the other end.



Defensive scheme versatility will be a persistent theme throughout this series. The Magic, just like the Cavaliers, can switch schemes on the fly and give Cleveland different looks something Donovan Mitchell is anticipating.

"I think [Orlando] will throw a bunch of different things at us because they have the ability to. We gotta be really tactical in how we move offensively. Understand we can't turn the ball over -- that's how they get their easy buckets," said Mitchell.




Mitchell wasn't wrong either. The Magic scored 92 total points off Cleveland's turnovers in their four-game series (23.0 per game) -- 33 of them were “fast break” points (8.3 per game). Identically how the Cavaliers are most likely aiming to stagnate the Magic in the half-court, Orlando should also aim to funnel Clevelands’ actions toward late-clock isolations and inefficient pull-ups and drives.


On paper, the Cavaliers are built to stop the Magic in several aspects. They’re lengthy and switchable — kryptonite to a motion offense predicated on ball and player movement. They have the rim protection to erase possible mistakes and lapses from switching. Orlando however does have enough individual shot-making from their two stars — a mandatory skill-set in the half-court slog that is the playoffs — to make up for their otherwise middling offense. Paired with the team's collective size is an asset on both ends of the floor.


 

X-Factor: Gary Harris



One of Mosley's biggest rotation adjustments this season was benching Markelle Fultz post All-Star Break to add additional floor spacing alongside the duo of Franz and Paolo, Elevating Gary Harris into a larger role -- now expected to open the playoffs matched up against one of Cleveland's elite guards. It hasn't been a kind end to the season for the veteran guard as he converted just two of his nine three attempts in the final two games despite being on the floor for a combined 60 minutes.


The ignitable Gary Harris can swing the pendulum of the series. Aside from a decent cutter and much-improved playmaker, Harris still possesses the powers of a 3-and-D veteran with the intangibles of wrecking any opponent's defensive game plan with excess artillery strikes. The Cavaliers will almost certainly key in on Orlando's formidable duo. They’ll switch off-ball actions, blitz and trap, and they’ll be put in rotation, especially during the early stages of the series where their defense may not look as sharp coming off nearly a week's rest. This is where the value of Harris as a spacer, second-side threat, and mid-range shot maker comes in. Cleveland will give up plenty of mid-range looks; it’s practically built into their schematic ethos. Harris being able to pick his spots against their drop will go a long way toward dissecting a defense that seems near impenetrable.


A series that contains friendships between players (Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles) and both coaches. Existing wounds cast from wanting the proverbial inferior opponent. A best-of-seven of seven series between two of the best Eastern Conference defensive units.


Orlando and Cleveland open the NBA Playoffs Saturday at noon both with one simple task: Sink or Swim.


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