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What a difference a year makes for confident Cavaliers | Jeff Schudel

Apr. 22—It is pretty cool when players on a team spend an entire week talking about their game plan for a playoff series and then watch them play exactly as they said they would.

The Cavaliers have broken the will of the Magic. They won Game 1 of the best-of-seven series, 97-83, on April 20 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse and then made the Magic disappear again, 96-86, April 22 in Game 2 at the FieldHouse.

"It starts with our defense," Coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after Game 2. "I thought we did a great job of forcing them to the shots we wanted. We conceded nothing. That's one of our messages. Very few of the shots they took weren't contested and the majority of them were highly contested."

The series moves to Orlando for Games 3 and 4 on April 25 and 27. It will shift back to the FieldHouse on April 30 if a fifth game is necessary. In the unlikely event of a water landing — I mean in the unlikely event of Game 6, it would be played May 3 in Orlando. Game 7 would be in Cleveland on May 5.

Here is what Jarrett Allen had to say Monday night after grabbing 20 rebounds to help the #Cavaliers beat the #Magic, 96-86, for a 2-0 series lead. pic.twitter.com/jiKblleFCc

— Jeff Schudel (@jsproinsider) April 23, 2024

The Cavaliers went into the series determined to show they would not cower if the Magic tried to turn the series into a game of human bumper cars. Not only did the Cavs do that in Game 2. They proved to be the more physical team.

Bodies were flying around until the very end. Cavs guard Darius Garland and Magic guard Jalen Suggs collided near the sideline opposite the team benches in the fourth quarter. Garland was temporarily dazed but finished the game.

Orlando backup center Moritz Wagner fouled out in the fourth quarter. His frustration was palpable. The FieldHouse crowd loved it.

The Cavs led from start to finish for the second straight game. They led, 30-18, after one quarter. At that juncture, the Magic were 1-of-11 on 3s. They were 8-of-37 on 3s in Game 1. That works out to a 5.4% success rate. They finished 9 of 35 on 3s in Game 2.

Bickerstaff said the plan was "to make life miserable" for Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero, Orlando's best offensive players. They combined for 39 points, but they were just 14 of 37 from the floor. Banchero was just 1 of 7 on 3s. Evan Mobley was like a pebble in Banchero's shoe, making him uncomfortable all night.

More than anything, the Cavs are playing with a confidence they lacked when they were wiped out by the Knicks in five games last year. The difference between having no playoff experience and gaining playoff experience, even in a losing effort, is real.

Jarrett Allen infamously confessed, "Even for me, the lights were brighter than expected," after the Cavs were eliminated by the Knicks. In particular, Knicks center Mitchell Robinson dominated the Cavaliers' center.

A year later, Allen dominated. Allen pulled down 20 rebounds — more than double anyone from Orlando had — and he grabbed nine of them from the offensive glass.

The team followed Allen's effort. The Cavs led by 22 early in the fourth quarter. The Magic went on a 12-0 run to shrink the lead to 87-78 with 4:57 to play — enough time for Orlando to make things close.

The Cavaliers rose to the challenge. A driving finger roll layup by Donovan Mitchell, a floating bank shot by Mitchell from 10 feet and a nine-foot turnaround hook shot by Mobley made it 94-78 with 2:41 left. The Cavs were in charge again.

Allen likes the way the Cavs are setting the tone.

"It's very satisfying," he said. "It shows that we've grown not only as a team, but as individuals. We're not folding under pressure. I mean, we do have our moments where we can still improve, but as a whole, I feel like we took a huge step forward."

The Cavaliers expect the Magic to punch back when the series moves to Orlando. They are ready for the fight.