What’s wrong with Magic’s offense vs. Cavs? Plenty. And here are some fixes | Analysis

A call came from a big Magic fan, and longtime friend and best man at my wedding: “Why is Gary Harris still playing? He gets me nothing.”

While true — Harris went scoreless in 33 minutes in Game 1 vs. Cleveland — the problems with this offense can’t be explained with plus-minus. This isn’t Keyshawn Johnson on FS1’s Undisputed or the NBA Countdown crew during halftime of an ESPN game, as the astute John Hollinger of The Athletic would say, poetry-slamming the boxscore.

Understanding what’s wrong can’t be explained by reeling off stats. Those numbers are a result of a bigger problem. There’s a chain reaction of symptoms that led to them that’s beyond Harris’ control. And it’s not the fault of any one player. And it can’t be explained with the cliche “be more aggressive.”

There’s levels to this.

(See my breakdown before this series started on what needed to happen to advance, based on the Magic’s four regular-season meetings with the Cavs, and it includes Harris’ 3-point shooting).

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Decision-making. Understanding the coverage and when it changes. Exploiting weaknesses. Not going into its teeth to get swallowed whole.

The Magic enter Games 3 and 4 Thursday and Saturday needing to flip the momentum of a series in which they’ve averaged less than 90 points a game.

So there’s no talk about defense here. They’ve held Cleveland below 100 points twice. That’s enough to win a playoff game, or at least get a split the first two games. The Magic have lost by double digits each time.

They’ve got to make the Cavs respect their offense to open up the flow. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if they’re sitting in a zone — at one point they set up in a Pack Line alignment, only pressuring the ballhandler — or just unconcerned with Orlando shooting.

A repeat of this offensive effort will end their season in a sweep. Here are some (not all) of the problems and some possible solutions before tip at Kia Center:

Problem: Getting shooters in a rhythm immediately. Harris is a role player. He had difficulty in Game 1 because the ballhandlers didn’t find him. He was there, spotting up while Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner and Cole Anthony drew help. After an offensive rebound, Banchero attacked a set defense with four in the paint. He went at Evan Mobley, an elite defender at 6-11, who also has help in the gap. The read should’ve been a skip pass to the opposite wing for Harris spotting up for a catch-and-shoot 3 (his strength). Darius Garland would’ve had to make a decision to defend Wagner’s cut to the basket or leave Harris on the weakside. Instead Banchero drove into traffic for a turnover.

Banchero went at Mobley again, but a dig from Donovan Mitchell up top forced him to pick up his dribble. The 6-8 Wagner tried to back down the smaller Mitchell with the ball, but Harris’ defender (Max Strus) helped one pass away. That made for an easy pass to where the defensive help initiated. Did Harris touch the ball? No. Wagner threw the ball the other way for Banchero to take a contested 3 over Mobley. That’s a bad miss.

Solution: The best plays are simple. When Banchero drove left vs. Georges Niang, Jarrett Allen was one pass away and helped from the corner off Wendell Carter. Banchero made an easy pass to Carter for a spot-up 3 that was good. Markelle Fultz attacked Garland immediately past halfcourt, forcing Mobley to pull early to help stop him. Fultz found Anthony with a quick pass out of the paint. He missed the open 3, but that’s the shot the Magic want. That puts the pressure on the Cavs. Consistent makes would force them to give up a likely 2 inside or probable 3 outside.

The ball didn’t touch the paint until six seconds remained on the shot clock because Fultz attacked the paint off a curl around Moe Wagner, who handed it to him at the elbow. Fultz’s cut collapsed the defense to the middle and he passed out to Franz Wagner for an open 3. He missed, but this is how to stress a defense that’s essentially zoning the paint.

Know that the Magic realized they’d made a mistake with Harris? Don’t take my word for it. Watch how Game 2 started. The first set called for Harris to get a corner 3. It would’ve been a better look had Franz Wagner made contact on Garland, who was trailing Harris after he’d set a back screen for Jonathan Isaac in the paint. Then Harris got the ball as he curled around Isaac’s high-post screen, did a low tuck on his drive through the lane and converted a layup.

For Wagner and Banchero to be more effective, they do need help. But it’s their job to set up the help so they call can prosper, too. They dominate the ball. Not the role players.

Problem: Too much dribbling. Too many isos. Three guys watching the dribbler and screener forces the Cavs to do nothing. Anthony held for the last shot of the third quarter in Game 1. He was defended by Niang (a weak, slow-footed, unathletic defender). He got a ball screen from Banchero, forcing a switch. Banchero had Niang posted deep. Anthony instead launched a sidestep 3 over Mobley that was not close.

Banchero had an iso vs. Niang, but he danced with the ball for the entire possession and ended up settling for a turnaround fallaway jumper. Allen left his man early to help and shut off the rim.

When Game 2 got away late in the second quarter, this possession encapsulated bad offense: Banchero gets a double stagger screen from Moe Wagner and Anthony. Isaac Okoro gets over the first one and climbs and goes under the next — with Mitchell tagging Banchero until Okoro fully recovers in front of the ball on the right wing. Looking at a strong on-ball defender and three others for Cleveland in help position (Allen, Mobley and Strus), Banchero drives into a wall and gets stripped. The play had no chance. He had no passing angles.

Solution: Pass. Move. Don’t ball-watch. Find your matchups, but don’t get so fixated with hunting one that you forget your identity and getting your primary weapons involved. To play as much iso as the Magic did, they’d need to have elite players on the ball in multiple spots. They don’t have that (most teams don’t). That’s not how they’re built. And even teams with elite on-ball talent (see the Nets with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden) can’t win this way. Of course, there has to be off-ball movement to create switches and mistakes by the defense. There needs to be dummy actions to fool them.

Fultz aggressively posted up Sam Merrill with the ball early in the clock. That forced Mobley to help and Garland to pull in behind him weakside. That opened Joe Ingles for a 3. No one ran at him. Ingles missed a clean look from the wing you’d take every time.

On that Banchero matchup with Niang, the better read was for Allen’s man (Isaac) to set a flare screen for Harris, or vice versa, for a clean 3-point look from the corner or wing. Instead, everyone watched Banchero play with his food. And make no mistake, on defense Niang is food. The Cavs helping him causes a chain reaction that opens other spots.

For Wagner and Banchero to be more effective, they need help. But it’s their job to set up the help so they all can prosper, too. They dominate the ball. Not the role players.

Problem: Late-in-the-clock offense

Solution: Too much dribble can lead to this. Late can be good if you’re running multiple actions, exhausting the defense and creating a busted coverage. It’s bad if you’re dribbling on one side, the ball never touches the paint and there are no other actions happening. The Magic’s quick-hit offense worked. These weren’t play calls. it was just catching the Cavs unsettled. It got the Magic easy buckets early.

Suggs dunked off a push when it appeared he was coming to get a handoff from Banchero up top, reversed his cut and beat Mitchell to the rim. How was that possible?

Allen was lifted because of Isaac, who was inserted into the starting lineup by coach Jamahl Mosley. If that’s, say, Moe Wagner, Allen is in a drop and that space isn’t open for Suggs. The Cavs respected Isaac’s spreadability.

The Magic have to get into their offense quicker, move with authority, screen with a purpose and cut aggressively. Once Cleveland gets set, the quality of the look they’re getting worsens.

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Problem: Passing up open shots. It’s happening at an alarming rate.

Solution: Don’t. That doesn’t mean Moe Wagner should be launching 20 3s a game because he’s open. But there are countless times where the Magic had a window for a clean look, hesitated and Cleveland corrected its mistake by recovering. Even worse, the Magic are passing up open shots for worse shots.

Fultz was attacking his matchup with Merrill from the elbow. Because that’s a likely bucket, Mobley held his position in the paint. Fultz didn’t force up a bad shot. He found Carter who had an open 3. He hesitated as Mobley stopped short on his closeout, tried to drive into a single gap and had the ball stripped by Merrill. Carter passed up a potential good look for no look. And that decision put the Cavs in transition.

Problem: The Ingles-Banchero two-man game. It doesn’t create space. It makes it more difficult to find openings elsewhere.

Solution: Avoid it. They’re not in sync the same as Ingles with Moe Wagner with the second unit. They’re spacing is jammed and when they run it because Cleveland defends successfully 2 v. 2. Meaning, it doesn’t compromise their coverage and lead better shot chances. No advantage gained.