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Strong start major key for Magic to protect homecourt vs. Cavs

The last time the Magic hosted a playoff game in front of Orlando fans, four-year pro Cole Anthony was a senior in high school.

Although Orlando reached the postseason in 2020, they played inside the NBA bubble at Disney. The year prior, the Magic hosted the Raptors in the first round but lost both home contests at Kia Center (then known as Amway).

In fact, it’s been 13 years since the franchise has won a home playoff game (2011 vs. Atlanta) despite three postseason appearances since then.

“The city’s hungry,” Anthony said after practice Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s Game 3 against Cleveland. “I know we’re definitely hungry, especially being down 0-2.

“So it’s going to be some fun.”

In order for the Magic to have that fun in front of a home crowd, however, Jamahl Mosley’s squad will have to figure out a way to open Game 3 off stronger compared to the first pair of contests at Cleveland that they lost after slow starts (Bally Sports Florida, 7).

The No. 4-seeded Cavs average the most first-quarter points (31.5) among all playoff teams and the fourth-most (55.5) in the first half. The No. 5 Magic’s 42.5 first-half points are the second-fewest.

“For us, we’ve just got to get off to a better start [and] not let them get off to this hot start,” Anthony said. “Obviously, we’ve got to control Donovan Mitchell.

“If we do that, we’ll have a great chance to get a win.”

Slowing down Mitchell is easier said than done for Orlando. Through two playoff games, the All-NBA guard is averaging the third-most points (12.0) in the 1st quarter among all players in the postseason behind only 76ers center Joel Embiid (13.5) and Bucks guard Damian Lillard (17.0).

If the Magic can crack the code to starting off on the right foot and limit Mitchell from the jump, Orlando could give itself a chance to extend the best-of-seven series.

Magic’s shooting woes pronounced in postseason vs. Cavs

Cleveland’s 41.0 second-half points are the fewest in the postseason. The problem for the Magic is that they’re only two spots higher than the Cavs with 42.0 points after halftime.

A lot of that has to do with shot-making — or lack of — for Orlando.

So far, the Magic have shot 11 of 44 (league-worst 25%) from 3-point range when the closest defender was 6-plus feet away (meaning they’re wide-open looks), according to the NBA.

Even with a defender just 4-6 feet away, Orlando still shot 6 of 25 from distance (24%).

Those open shots, however, could be deceiving. While the Magic might run certain set plays in the half-court to create space, some of those shots could actually be what the Cavs want Orlando to take.

That’s because the Magic shot 33.3% on open 3-pointers where the closest defender was 4-6 feet away during the regular season — the seventh-worst percentage in the league entering the playoffs.

But the Magic like the looks they’re getting.

“Because it’s the shot we’ve taken and stepped in with confidence all year,” Mosley said. “If we weren’t generating other things within the offense, there would be an area of concern but the things that we’ve done with a strength all year, we’re still doing them at a high clip.

“It’s just the ability to step into our shots with confidence, which all of these guys will continue to do.”

And to their credit, they’ve held Cleveland to 3 of 24 (or 12.5%) on 3-pointers with the closest defender 4-6 feet away.

“We’re all capable of making shots,” Anthony said. “We’ve just got to do it now.”

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One player who could help is Jalen Suggs, who’s expected to be available for Game 3 after exiting Monday’s loss at Cleveland due to a left knee strain. Although he’s struggled from 3 through two playoff games (1 of 10), Suggs shot 39.7% from 3 in the regular season, which was second-best for Orlando.

He returned to Game 2 in the second half after suffering the leg injury in the first quarter but Mosley said post-game that the Magic guard was in quite a bit of pain at the time.

“I do expect Jalen to be able to play,” said Mosley who shared that Suggs is doing better and was able to practice Wednesday.

A boost from the fans inside Kia Center could help the Magic as well — the same way the electric atmosphere inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse boosted the Cavs to a 2-0 lead with the series headed to Orlando.

“I’m sure they’re really hungry,” forward Franz Wagner said of Magic fans. “Not hungrier than us though. We’ve got to come out ready to go and have some fun too.”

Added Mosley: “The support that they give and the atmosphere in the building is absolutely incredible. That gives our guys so much energy and the ability to know that we have to take care of homecourt.”

Jason Beede can be reached at jbeede@orlandosentinel.com

If you go …

Cavaliers at Magic, Game 3

When: Thursday, 7

TV: Bally Sports Florida