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Cavaliers show a unique edge and grit in series-opening win over Orlando | Opinion

Apr. 20—Georges Niang wanted the Magic to know things were going to be different this postseason.

After taking a hard foul from Markelle Fultz midway through the second quarter of the Cavaliers' Eastern Conference opener against the visiting Magic on April 20, Niang pointed toward the Orlando bench on the far end of the court and barked at them.

Stepping out near midcourt, Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley folded his hands as if he were praying and bowed to Niang as Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" blared from the arena's sound system.

This was NOT going to be business as usual. This was NOT going to be the same soft Cavaliers who were ousted from the first round of the 2023 playoffs by the Knicks.

Playing with a physical edge not seen in last year's early exit from the playoffs, the Cavaliers defeated the Magic, 97-83, to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series despite a miserable shooting streak in which the Cavaliers missed 18 straight 3-pointers and still found a way to be leading by 15 after three quarters.

In all actuality, it's a game the Cavaliers would have lost a year ago. A cold-shooting streak like the Cavaliers went through April 20 would have crucified their chances of winning a playoff opener. They didn't shoot well enough, defend well enough, play tough enough or withstand runs well enough to survive a game like they experienced on April 20.

But everything that was WRONG with last year's Cavaliers is what was RIGHT with the Cavaliers in this playoff opener, such as:

—The ability to find ways to score even when the 3-point shots weren't falling.

After making their first five 3-pointers to start the game, the Cavaliers missed 18 in a row before Darius Garland opened the fourth quarter with a triple from the top of the key that opened a gaudy 78-58 lead.

The Cavaliers might have been bad behind the arc — they were brutal at 8-for-30 — but they were a very efficient 28-for-51 (55%) inside the arc and amazingly never lost the lead during their cold streak.

—Their defense was tremendous throughout the game, which was paramount with their chilly streak from the arc.

Granted, Orlando was awful offensively, shooting 33% (28 of 86) for the game, including 22% (8 of 37) from beyond the arc and 63% (19 of 30) from the line. But a lot of that had to do with the tenacity of Cleveland's defense.

At one point, Orlando's Paolo Banchero was trapped against the sideline by Niang, who forced an errant pass that Donovan Mitchell picked off and took the other way for a dunk. Mitchell will get credit for the dunk, but it wouldn't have happened without Niang's hounding pressure.

The Cavaliers used their superior height in the middle with 7-footers Jarett Allen and Evan Mobley to change countless shots. That tandem combined for 32 points and 22 rebounds on the offensive end. Allen had 16 points and 18 rebounds, with Allen going for 16 points and 11 boards.

Cleveland was credited with only four blocks in the game, but altered and contested many, if not most, shots in the paint.

More on Niang — the Cavaliers were plus-17 with him on the floor Saturday, a better plus-minus than anyone else on the team.

—The ability to sustain Orlando's runs.

Even with their chilly shooting performance, every time the Magic made a run, the Cavaliers answered. In the third quarter, Orlando trimmed the margin to four points, only to see Cleveland stretch it back out to 15 at 73-58 going into the fourth quarter.

When Cleveland had its 78-58 lead early in the fourth, Orlando whittled it to single digits. But 3s by Mitchell and Garland got it back out to a double-digit game and made for the 14-point win.

That might not have happened last year.

—The aforementioned edge with which the team played.

Just prior to Niang's encounter with Fultz that brought the crowd to its feet, Orlando's Moritz Wagner planted Mobley deep out of bounds underneath the basket for a foul. Cleveland's Isaac Okoro took exception to the physical play and drew a technical foul for confronting Wagner's shove.

The message was clear — the same bully-ball that the Knicks used last April would not be tolerated this time around.

The capacity crowd at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse LOVED it. They loved seeing their team show the kind of fight and grit Niang and Okoro showed. The team played like they fed off that.

That didn't happen last year against the Knicks, whose physicality and 'thuggery' dismantled the Cavaliers.

Going forward, even with the 1-0 lead in the series, the Cavaliers do have issues they need to address if they want to win this series and head to the next round.

First off, going on an 0-for-18 streak from beyond the arc and surviving with a victory probably isn't going to happen again. That was a bullet dodged, although it was done so by playing tough defense and not letting colder-shooting Orlando get back in the game.

Having Mobley check Banchero — who is physically superior — might not be a long-term recipe for success, and turning the ball over 18 times again likely won't work in their favor. Too many lazy passes and shoddy ball-handling out front gave Orlando a potential lifeline.

But all things considered, the win was gigantic for the Cavaliers because they did things they didn't in last year's series loss to the Knicks — primarily by playing with an edge and displaying superior defense.

There's a long way to go in the series, but the Cavaliers' biggest statement on Saturday wasn't as much the score than it was the message Niang & Co. sent early on.

This series is not going to be business as usual for the Cavaliers.

Kampf can be reached at JKampf@news-herald.com; @NHPreps or @JKampf_NH on X.