What it will take for Magic to advance out of first round | Analysis

The season series was 2-2. It’s a Nos. 4-vs.-5 matchup between the Cavaliers and the Magic that begins Saturday.

It’s a toss-up, right? On paper, yes, but the postseason is a different beast.

There isn’t much that separates teams at this level. Winning and losing have as much to do with the nuances and the games within the games. Predictability is the enemy of Magic coach Jamahl Mosley and Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff.

Magic formula: Wendell Carter Jr.’s selflessness epitomizes Orlando’s approach as Jonathan Isaac steps up

If an Oklahoma action works like a charm to get Jalen Suggs open 3s in Game 1 — setting a staggered screen for a shooter with Wendell Carter only to peel off himself and cut back to the ball behind the center for a catch-and-shoot — that doesn’t mean it’ll be an efficient play in Game 2.

There’s a reason why an All-Star such as Domantas Sabonis, still a double-double machine with the Kings after being dealt by the Pacers, has been rendered ineffective in so many playoff series. Teams took away his left hand, implemented smaller lineups to defend the bruising center with 6-8 forwards strong enough to match his strength up top but quick enough to beat him to his favorite spots with their feet and prevent him from turning to his right shoulder to score.

There’s a reason why the hype about the Lakers finding something in having Rui Hachimura defending MVP Nikola Jokic for one quarter in one game in last year’s West finals was beyond overstatement. Lakers coach Darvin Ham was wise enough to not go back to it in the next game, figuring the Nuggets would be prepared for it. When he finally did it again, it was a desperation tactic to avoid the sweep.

It didn’t work. Jokic wasn’t caught off guard by the strategy to use the 6-8 forward, too, to disrupt him with Anthony Davis zoning behind to help over the top. Jokic punished the matchup by posting up lower and using his 54-pound advantage to pick them apart as he sprayed the ball out to 3-point shooters as the Lakers tried to defend 4 with 3 on the perimeter. One team went home. The other won the NBA title.

Preparing for one team instead of three or four different teams in an 82-game regular season leads to better, more physical defense and lower scoring. The finest details might not be evident in statistics. Something as simple as changing the alignment for an after-timeout play, although the play being essentially the same, can be enough to steal a basket or two that proves to be the difference in winning or losing a series.

Five things that are clear after four meetings between the Magic and the Cavs:

Gary Harris and Wendell Carter must shoot (and make) 3s

Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley are long, rangy and can defend. When the Magic used Goga Bitadze in Carter’s starting spot at center while he was out injured, Allen played in drop and congested the paint. Why? Bitadze wasn’t a threat to pop to the top of the key or corner. Carter isn’t a volume 3-point shooter, but he can hit the occasional long ball to keep the defense honest. Harris can get hot quickly and rattle off volume. They have to knock down looks early to loosen the coverage or to make the Cavs think twice about blitzing every ball screen for Paolo Banchero to make him give up the ball. Otherwise Banchero and Franz Wagner won’t find seams to attack.

Look beyond Banchero’s stats for true impact

Banchero is going to get his numbers just because of his usage rate. He insists he can go left, but ample evidence shows even when he’s set up on the left side of the floor (rarely), he’s going to his right hand. That’s actually not as bad because he can get to the middle where he has more options to survey the floor. When he attacks with his right hand off the right side, he’s essentially using that baseline as an extra defender to limit his options and Allen is always there in support to wall the glass. It’s even worse when Banchero attacks and a teammate is in the strongside corner … meaning there’s an extra defender on the short side who can help shut him down. That player has to empty the side to create space for Banchero to operate or it’s mission abort. The results are a lot of pull-up mid-range shots, deflected pass attempts, contested shots and turnovers that come with playing in traffic. He totaled 17 turnovers in the series for good reason. And while he’s a good individual defender, his team defense often was less than ideal. He was out of position on help, didn’t identify shooters in transition and instead stayed with his own man that allowed for open 3s, He was beaten up the court by Isaac Okoro for a layup while Banchero, who was above the 3-point line, lowered his head in disgust watching a teammate turn it over in the paint. His team will follow his lead.

Identify shooters ASAP

The way the Magic defended the Cavs to open their last regular-season meeting was more like it. They weren’t always up on Max Strus, Donovan Mitchell (missed Feb. 22), Darius Garland (missed Jan. 22) and Dean Wade, who can pull up from from anywhere. This is how Sam Merrill, who averages 8 points a game, morphed into Steph Curry by making 8 of 13 from 3. Average shooters become good shooters when they have open windows to launch. Good shooters become elite shooters. The Magic have to pick up these shooters higher before they step into rhythm 3s. Mitchell, in particular, has range. They all have the green light.

Avoid Franz Wagner vs. Evan Mosley isos

Stay away from isos unless it’s a last resort and the shot clock is about to expire. Mobley, at 6-11, can stay in front of Wagner without help, which keeps defensive integrity everywhere else for Cleveland. It’s a low-efficiency play to attack this matchup for Orlando. Look at the rest of the floor when this happens. Typically three or four other Magic players are stationary and watching the offense devolve in real time. No weakside exchanges. No flare screens. No post splits. No dummy actions. Just too much dribbling and incredibly difficult, contested shots. Getting Wagner moving without the ball and catching coming off curls and twirl actions are better. Even if Wagner doesn’t get the shot, it could get someone out of position trying to help or switch to create an open shot elsewhere.

Locate and exploit favorable matchups

Target Georges Niang when he’s on the floor. Any time the reserve plays, the Cavs try to hide him on the least threatening offensive player. Play through those matchups. If the Cavs don’t help, take what’s given. If they do, reserves such as Joe Ingles and Cole Anthony should be in position to pull the trigger on kickouts. When the Cavs go zone, Moe Wagner is good at timing his cuts to find the soft spots for shots at the rim and getting second chances on putbacks. Anthony gets get loose against many of the players already mentioned aside from Mobley.

X factor

In Jonathan Isaac’s last two appearances, he’s played an average of 26.5 minutes. That’s almost double what he routinely played most of the season. He loves to crash from the corners for putbacks. He can knock down corner 3s. Isaac has been used in closing lineups when the Magic needed defense to hold leads, is switchable on smalls because he can stay in front, take away their air space on jump shots and has the length and athleticism to recover if beaten by a step. Switchables like Isaac are at a premium come postseason.