The Cavaliers may need bold moves to beat the Magic in Orlando

ORLANDO, Fla. – The Cleveland Cavaliers' goal, of course, is to win Game 6, and not just to avoid further embarrassment on the road.

There are emotional and technical components to doing both – emerging from the rubble of a loss to the Orlando Magic by a total of 61 points in the final two games of this series at the Kia Center, winning on Friday and advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday the Boston Celtics.

Emotional disappointments were more difficult to prevent for the Cavs, at least in the Magic's building, than for Franz Wagner. In Games 3 and 4, as Orlando raised its level of play and engaged the home crowd, Cleveland's players withered, splintered and were otherwise unable to rise to the challenge.

Cavs players were thrown from their seats on offense, and defenders fell backwards and to the sides as they were hit in the chest by charging Magic forwards (and tough guard Jalen Suggs).

So before considering lineup adjustments and strategy, the Cavs need to act as if they know the playoff series will take place in two arenas and not just the comfort of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, where Cleveland is coming off a thrilling Game 5, 104: 103 won , on Tuesday.

“The biggest thing is just the effort we had tonight, understanding that those shots that we hit, those runs that we made, there's no volume and there's nothing coming at us (Friday in Orlando),” said Donovan Mitchell on Tuesday night. “We have to stick together as a group and, you know, I think if we go there knowing what's coming, knowing who they are as a team down there, we have to be locked in. We have to stay together. And I have no doubt that we will.”


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What's Mitchell to say about being confident the Cavs won't cave again under the same conditions that beat them down in Orlando?

In Game 3, which was the Cavs' most lopsided loss in playoff history (38 points), the Magic took their first lead in the series on a 3-pointer by Paolo Banchero with 5:27 left in the first quarter. Banchero knocked down another goal with 2:12 left to break the tie, and Orlando never trailed again. Cleveland's deficit was 10 in about two minutes, 15 at the 9:24 mark of the second quarter and 21 at 4:11 before halftime.

Mitchell and Darius Garland, the Cavs' leading scorers all season, each scored two points in the first game. Garland finished with five (!) and Mitchell wasn't much better with 13 points. Game 4 was much better for a half before Cleveland played one of its worst quarters in playoff history in Game 3. Mitchell went scoreless in the second half. A lead of nine points at halftime turned into a not-so-narrow loss of 21 points.

Garland was a much different player entering Game 5 on Tuesday, scoring 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting. He would be the first adjustment Cleveland can make this time around, although it still lands more on the emotional side than the technical side. Garland can carry that same shoot-first mentality into Game 6.

“The rim looked a little big to me,” Garland said after Game 5. “I think our guys are built for these moments.”

Mitchell dominated the fourth quarter of Game 5, scoring 14 of his 28 points on nine made free throws (he missed a 10th attempt). Should the Cavs reach the fourth quarter of Game 6 with a chance to win, it will be an opportunity for Mitchell to close out the way superstars with max contracts and All-Star nods do, which he often does. It would be a repeat of what he did for Cleveland in Game 5, a try coupled with Evan Mobley's huge block of Wagner's layup attempt with about six seconds left that won the game.

The other big adjustment the Cavs can make from Game 4 to Game 6 (since we're talking about what needs to be different for Cleveland on the road) was made out of necessity on Tuesday.

Jarrett Allen, the Cavs' center and the series' most consistent player, was “pierced” in the right rib by an elbow from Wagner in Game 4 and was unable to play in Game 5, according to a team source.

When the Cavs are missing either Allen or Mobley from the starting lineup, they tend to play smaller, with four guards/wings around the big man available. When Mobley played like that for two months earlier this season, the Cavs had the best record in the NBA and were the league's best 3-point shooting team during that span.

It's no coincidence that Game 5 featured the Cavs' best team offensively in the series, with a starting lineup of Mitchell, Garland, Max Strus, Isaac Okoro and Mobley. It's easier for them to hit 40 3-point attempts, there's more room for Mitchell and Garland to get into the zone, and there's no pressure for Mobley to go to the corner and attempt a 3-pointer to shoot – which is the case when he plays together with Allen. The larger lineup will require one of the big men to move to the perimeter to create more space for the guards, and it won't be Allen.

The Magic didn't adjust right away, were confused by Cleveland's floor spacing and were held in check by a standout performance from Banchero (39 points).

“The difference is the distance, longer rotations,” Mitchell said. “Jonathan Isaac, for example, now comes out of the corner instead of helping (when the Cavs have Mobley and Allen on the court). … It's a game of inches. … When a guy like Jonathan Isaac or Wendell Carter has to come from the wing or the corner, now makes that pass and catches them in the middle of the rotation, it just changes the game.”

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Allen was back on the floor Thursday for light practice drills, but his availability for Game 5 is questionable. He's averaging 17 points and nearly 14 rebounds and certainly didn't do anything to lose his starting spot. And for what it's worth, when Mobley returned from knee surgery in February, the Cavs immediately inserted him back into the starting lineup. They have shown no desire to make the incredibly difficult decision of taking one of their starters off the bench in order to maintain the style of play on offense that is clearly the best for the team this season.

And yet Allen's injury presents an opportunity to do just that – at least for Game 6. If Allen can play on Friday, the Cavs could easily say (and wouldn't even have to) that Allen is available but limited by injury. They could start Mobley and sub in Allen for him, with the possibility of putting them together if the Magic adjust properly or if the fourth quarter calls for more defense than offense.

It would be a bold move, but nothing else the Cavs tried on their last visit to Orlando seemed to work.

(Photo of Jarrett Allen and Wendell Carter Jr.: Don Juan Moore / Getty Images)

Anna Harden

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