May 25, 2024

Why the Magic’s season ended with a brutal Game 7 loss to the Cavaliers

CLEVELAND — The NBA record book will never record that, for a few pulse-pounding minutes in Sunday afternoon’s second quarter, the Orlando Magic looked well on their way to blowing out the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series.

Paolo Banchero overshadowed everyone else in the gym. Gary Harris swished a 3-pointer, extending Orlando’s lead to 18 points. A group of out-of-town fans wearing Magic blue leaped to their feet behind the visitors’ bench, roared their approval and made Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse sound as if it belonged to them.

What happened next, during the game’s final 28 minutes, will haunt the Magic for months, if not years, to come. In an abrupt about-face, the Cavaliers regained a tenuous foothold late in the second quarter and then dominated the third quarter, sending the young Magic back to Florida with a 106-94 loss, a series defeat and, perhaps, a feeling that they had collapsed.

“I walked in the locker room, and I said, ‘It sucks,’ ” coach Jamahl Mosley told reporters after he had spoken to his players. “It does — it does not to get the game, knowing what you were capable of doing, to be up 18, to feel you (had) a chance to close out and not get it done. It doesn’t feel good. And, then in the same breath, you have to put it all into perspective. Sometimes these painful things are blessings in disguise.”

It may be difficult for Orlando’s players to see the bigger picture anytime soon. In the decisive stretch Sunday, from 4:16 remaining in the second quarter to 5:53 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers outscored the Magic 57-28.

Everything snowballed. Donovan Mitchell scored relentlessly. The Magic’s ball movement slowed to a crawl, and Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs struggled. The sellout crowd, clad in black T-shirts and waving white towels, erupted with each dazzling play by Mitchell and every missed shot and turnover by Orlando.

“It was a hell of an environment,” said Banchero, who scored a team-high 38 points. “Probably the most intense game I’ve played in my life, just with the crowd and the possession-by-possession battles and the toll it takes on your body, on your mind.”

Although the Magic were the league’s fifth-youngest team at the start of the season, they almost always played with a composure and a tenacity that belied their youth. They had demonstrated that poise and toughness throughout the series, especially after they lost the first two games in Ohio and trailed 3-2 heading into Game 6 in Orlando. At times, the Cavs looked like the more inexperienced ballclub.

However, Sunday was the exception. Beginning late in the second quarter, the Magic appeared to become unraveled, with their vaunted, physical defense looking like a shell of itself and their offense seeming as if it had lost its structure (other than giving the ball to Banchero and expecting him to work miracles, as he had done earlier in the series).

After a torrid shooting start in which they hit seven of their first 14 3-point attempts, they misfired from long range or drove straight into traffic, where Evan Mobley often awaited to block their shots. Meanwhile, Mitchell torched them by scoring 39 points, mostly on drives to the basket and on trips to the foul line.

“I don’t think there was a loss of composure,” Mosley said. “I think there was an opportunity where we missed a lot of easy looks. We call a timeout. We come out and get a look that we want; it misses. They get off on the break and they run and get an easy layup. So it takes it out of you a little bit.

“But the one thing about this team, they did not lose their composure. There was no whining. There was no moaning. There was no yelling.”

Wagner, who had been key in each of Orlando’s three postseason victories, struggled on Sunday. He picked up three early fouls, forcing Mosley to send him to the bench for the final six minutes of the second quarter. That, as Mosley said, disrupted Wagner’s rhythm. Wagner finished an uncharacteristic 1 of 15 from the field. He also attempted only four free throws and finished with just six points.

Wagner took the loss hard.

“I didn’t really get to the spots that I wanted to get to,” he said. “I probably was a little rushed, and some shots just didn’t go in. But obviously, I expect a lot more from myself. It sucks. It sucks to end the season like this. I feel like I let my team down a little bit.”

Like many Magic players, Franz Wagner struggled on offense in Game 7 against the Cavaliers. (Ken Blaze / USA Today)

Mosley added: “Franz Wagner battled, and he was doing everything possible to get what he needed. And mind you, those three fouls early — I’m not going to get a fine — at the end of the day, being taken out of your rhythm, and you attack the basket the exact same way (Paolo) and Donovan Mitchell were and not to get those same calls? You just have to look at that a little bit.”

Suggs did not add much offensively, either, going 2 of 13 from the field and managing 10 points. Although he dished out four assists, he also had five turnovers.

Part of the problem offensively was that, after they sprinted out to an 18-point lead, the Cavaliers finally started to sink shots. That, in turn, gave the Cavs opportunities to set their half-court defense and build a wall around the paint.

Neither team won a road game in the series, and Magic players credited the Cleveland crowd with disrupting their offense on Sunday.

“When it gets loud, and the communication becomes harder, that’s when even more you’ve got to be on the same page,” Harris said. “Even that just slowed us down a little bit. When we were up by 18, it wasn’t as loud.”

Add the rigors of a Game 7 on the road to the laundry list of lessons the Magic learned during their 2023-24 season.

A win or two more during the regular season would have given them home-court advantage during the first round. As impressive as it was to earn the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, a loss on April 5 in Charlotte, as well as a few others, proved costly.

That’s the way the NBA works, isn’t it? Only one of the league’s 30 teams ends the season and the postseason perfectly happy with how things went. There can only be one champion.

For the Magic, that reality felt especially brutal Sunday because of how close they had come to pulling off a first-round upset. But as they prepared to leave Cleveland for their flight back to Florida, instead of jetting to Boston for the second round, some players tried to put their season and postseason into a broader perspective.

“I know we’ll be back,” Banchero said.

(Top photo of Paolo Banchero and Isaac Okoro: Ken Blaze / USA Today)