Magic formula to contain Donovan Mitchell. Will it change in Game 7? | Analysis

If you want to just repeat what the boxscore says and conclude that the Magic can’t allow guard Donovan Mitchell to score 50 points again if they hope to win Game 7 on Sunday, you could be right but also wrong.

No team wants any individual opponent to score 50. But if in doing so the Cavs fail to break 100, you’ll take your chances. Other times you play the percentages, and that one outlier game sinks you.

That almost came to fruition in Game 6.

Memo to Cavaliers: You wanted the Magic, you got the Magic! | Commentary

Mitchell took 36 shots Friday night. He made 61%. The Cavs scored 96 and only have an L to show for it.

The Magic have been determined all series to force him inside the 3-point arc and induce contested 2s, hoping their superior length can limit his efficiency.

Mitchell was only 3-for-9 on 3s. The Magic will take that. His backcourt mate Darius Garland had 21 points but was 1-for-4 from 3. The Magic will take that, too.

Why? Evan Mobley was held to 1-for-4 shooting overall. Marcus Morris shot 1-for-7, including missing all four of his 3-point attempts. Georges Niang was 1-for-4 from 3.

The Cavs shot 7-for-28 from deep (25%).

Know what happens when they go 14-for-34 (41.2%) from 3? The Magic lose by 10 (see Dec. 6 regular-season game).

What about when the Cavs shoot 9-for-40 (22.5%) from 3? The Magic win by 10 (see matchup five days later).

How about when the Cavs shoot 20-for-38 (52.6%) from 3? The Magic lose by 27 (see Jan. 22).

The Magic didn’t do a good job jamming the ball, locking and trailing over screens, and gave shooters too much air space in their losses. Mitchell stepped into 3s with his defender waiting too deep to bother his shot.

When the Magic took those looks away or forced 2s, they won. That the Cavs only attempted 28 3s on Friday speaks to the looks not even being there.

How? Defending Mitchell this way allowed them to stick to shooters and limit scram switches that can lead to miscommunications and open looks for good shooters (Max Strus, Sam Merrill, Niang, Garland, Mitchell).

ESPN’s halftime “analysis,” if you want to call it that, came from not studying the matchup or recent history. The focus was about all the points scored in the paint by Cleveland and how the Magic had to stop it.

Newsflash: You can’t stop everyone, everywhere, every single time. The Cavs are pretty good, too, if you haven’t noticed.

It’s a trade-off. The question is: What is the Magic’s defense in that game designed to do and has it been accomplished? The answer isn’t what raw numbers — devoid of any context — show.

Three-pointers are momentum-changers. When they fall, they create fires on multiple fronts.

In the Magic’s three losses this series, the Cavs average 35.3 looks per game from 3. In their wins, they hold them to nine fewer attempts. The Cavs have reached 100 once and average just 94 points per game. That’s almost 19 fewer than their regular-season average (112.6).

That’s 14th among 16 NBA playoff teams. And the two teams below them (Heat, Pelicans) already have been eliminated.

Game 7 is where dreams are made, legends are born | Commentary

The strategy

The Magic had three different defenders on Mitchell for Cleveland’s first three possessions because of crossmatches in transition. But it was the primary assignment for forward Jonathan Isaac, who started with guard Gary Harris injured, for most of the game. At 6-10, Isaac is seven inches taller and has the mobility and defensive IQ to stay attached.

The Magic helped in the gaps on Mitchell’s drives, but they didn’t double him. They made him work. The shooters around him rarely had clean looks on the catch. And when they did dig inside on Mitchell, their superior length allowed them to recover to close out shooters and their squared closeouts eliminated straight-line drives to the rim.

And in the fourth quarter, the Magic varied their matchups with Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Markelle Fultz and Paolo Banchero switching amongst each other to take away Mitchell’s air space.

The only easy make for Mitchell in scoring 18 points in the quarter was a deep walk-up 3 with victory slipping away.

Why it worked

Mobley (and backup Tristan Thompson) can’t spread out the Cavs offense, so the Magic’s 5 man can stay in a drop to help if Mitchell gets a step on his defender to attack. And Isaac can rear-contest the shot.

The shooters around him stay covered.

If Mobley or Thompson were threats to pop from 3 off their ball screens, that would open the lane and maybe hard double-teams are required.

The key with Mitchell is to not overhelp because he gets inside to make difficult shots over length. He’s an All-NBA guard. He’s going to score.

This shrinks the floor.

The other All-Star guard

Garland, who is only 6-1, has more difficulty getting free as he faced Isaac a lot late. The Cavs ran multiple screens and he still had no room to operate.

When Mitchell sits, the Cavs will hunt offensive opportunities for Garland as he runs a two-man game with Niang, leaving the strong-side corner empty to eliminate a helper. They want to get Suggs and Fultz off him and force a big such Moe Wagner or Wendell Carter to switch so he can get downhill.

The Magic didn’t double. They played him for the drive and relied on size to contest if he pulls up for a jump shot. The key is to not get too close because he can blow by but not get too far away and allow an open stepback 3.

The other four players for Cleveland are neutralized because they’re essentially out of the play, and passing over and through length is more challenging for him. His passes are off target, so when Isaac Okoro catches it open in the corner, having to reach down for the ball before getting into his shot motion allowed Moe Wagner, for instance, that extra count to take away the look.


The Magic’s overall discipline.

They didn’t bail him out, or compound Mitchell’s made baskets, with fouling. No matter the defender, they played position defense, contesting with proper closeouts. There was no reaching or gambling for steals, which leads to free throws or puts the defense in rotation and creates open spot-up 3s.

It’s easy to get antsy after playing picture-perfect defense to see Mitchell make 22 field goals, but the Cavs as a whole only took 10 free throws. Mitchell went 3-for-6, which is astounding considering his usage rate and how much he played in traffic.

Wild card

Cole Anthony might be smaller than Strus at three inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter, but the guard blew up Cleveland’s actions multiple times.

He was more physical, disallowing Strus to set screens and jumping his cut to intercept a pass. This looks like a good matchup for Orlando.

Anthony has shot only 2-for-13 from 3 for the series. In the absence of Harris, who has not been an offensive factor anyway, there’s a void he can fill on offense that would create a major problem for Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff.