NBA Playoffs 2024: The Orlando Magic's run is fueled by impulsive play

As halftime approached In the fifth game on Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Moritz Wagner was tired of the boos.

The seriousness began in the first minute of the second quarter when the Orlando Magic center stepped to the line after a foul on Cavs colleague Tristan Thompson. The jeers turned to cheers when Wagner missed the first of his two shots.

The boos increased again when Wagner exchanged a few words with Thompson with 8:11 left in the quarter after another foul that sent him to the line. The crowd at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse loudly agreed as Wagner fired his first shot again.

With 5:53 minutes left before halftime, Wagner hit a three-pointer from the top half of the arc. As he ran back, the 6-11 tall man formed his hand into three fingers, brought it to his lips and blew a kiss to the crowd.

Since the beginning of the series, there has been a difficult relationship between Wagner and the Cavs' home crowd. In Game 1, Wagner grabbed a loose ball with his right hand while pushing Cavs forward Evan Mobley out of bounds with his left. As he walked away and collided with Cavs guard Darius Garland, Wagner turned to his teammates on the bench and clapped several times. Isaac Okoro then intentionally collided with Wagner, prompting a technical foul on the Cavs forward and the ire of the crowd.

On the Magic's next offensive possession, Wagner secured an offensive rebound after Joe Ingles' missed shot. He ended the play with a put-in and turned back to his bench.

“He's got a crazy face, spit running down his chin and he's just screaming 'I'm made for this.' I love it,” Orlando guard Jalen Suggs told ESPN. “As soon as he came over, I said to him, 'I like you so much.'

“For me it’s free motivation, free gas. When you see a teammate do something like that, you have no choice but to stand up for it yourself.”

No away team won a game in this heated first-round series. After a 104-103 loss in Game 5, the Magic are down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series and now need to win Game 6 on Friday in Orlando (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), which they absolutely must have to win.

To force a Game 7 back in Cleveland, the Magic will have to rely on what helped them secure a playoff spot for the first time since 2020: strong defense, rebounds, a core of young players — and a little Chirping on the pitch.

“It's obvious that I accept it. It’s clear that I enjoy it too,” Wagner told ESPN. “But I always have a problem with myself – I don’t want to get too involved in it.

“If I can use the things around me as a productive tool, I definitely will. But it’s very important to me to always pay attention to my surroundings and not get involved in them.”

IN MANY PRACTICES This season, the Magic stopped live practices because they were too physically demanding. The trash talk between them was relentless. They complete five-on-five sessions as if they were in a real game.

“It's everything we've grown up knowing – talking trash and physicality, but on this show everyone embraces it,” Suggs said. “When we felt it in the first game and it went like that, we were perfect. This is exactly what we wanted.”

However, the Magic are aware that these emotions should not get in the way of their current goal – to win a playoff series for the first time since reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.

“That’s what makes this group special. But it’s also what makes each individual who they are,” Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley told ESPN. “You have to allow these young men to be who they are at all times.”

Mosley praised the 36-year-old Ingles, now in his ninth season in the NBA, for bringing some resentment into team drills early in the season and showing how best to respond to it.

“He was trying to push buttons and that’s what they needed. “You have to know that they will do the same thing when you play against an opponent,” Mosley said. “You have to be prepared for it.”

Against Cleveland, the Magic relied on the kind of physical play that produced a defense that ranks second in efficiency this postseason, allowing 93.8 points per game.

Although the Cavs scored under 100 points in the first four games of the series, it was a learning curve for the second-youngest team in the playoffs (behind the West's No. 1 seed Oklahoma City Thunder). Three players in the Magic's starting lineup — Suggs, Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner — are all 22 or younger and playing in their first postseason series.

“When something is a first, you want to take it all in,” Suggs said of the losses in Games 1 and 2. “I caught myself a few times just looking around the arena and really paying attention to what “happened on the screen and stuff.” the sounds and noises and the fans.”

In Games 3 and 4 in Orlando, the Magic earned double-digit victories, thanks in part to the improved play of their young stars and the strong recovery of the Elite. During the regular season, the Magic ranked seventh in offensive rebound percentage. In those wins, the Magic outscored the Cavaliers by 23 second-chance points.

It also helped that Banchero, the top pick of the 2022 draft, found his rhythm after 15 turnovers in Games 1 and 2. In the Game 3 win, he scored 31 points and grabbed 14 boards to become the youngest player with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and no turnovers in a playoff game in NBA history.

Franz Wagner followed with a similar performance in Game 4 – his 34 points and 13 rebounds made him and Banchero the first pair of teammates to each have a turnover-free game with 30 points and 10 rebounds in the same series.

With the series back in Orlando, Mosley wants his team to know how to balance an elimination game with their established style of play.

“It is important to keep the line but not cross it. “You want to do what’s right for the team,” Mosley said. “You get hyped, you get aggressive, you do these things to get everyone excited, I love that. But you have to know what the reason is for you to stop.”

SUGGS BELIEVED HE missed a “silence the crowd” moment when Franz Wagner's layup was blocked in the final seconds of Friday's one-point loss in Cleveland. But the Magic know they've been a far better team at home than away this season.

With a 26-12 record at the Kia Center, their 12.4 point difference between home and away games is the second largest in the NBA this season, trailing only the Utah Jazz.

“We have a higher sense of urgency to play at home,” Suggs told reporters on Thursday.

The Magic must continue to limit All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, who averaged just 15.5 points per game in the Cavs' last two losses in Orlando. And the Magic need to control the boards as Cleveland only managed seven offensive rebounds in the two games. Suggs' defense was particularly effective, as the Cavs shot 7 of 38 (18%) when he was the primary defender.

According to a study by ESPN Stats & Information, that is the lowest field goal percentage allowed by a defenseman in the postseason. Specifically, Suggs' defense has forced Mitchell into more turnovers (five) than field goals (4 of 22 in the series).

“It will be a physical game. That's what we expect, but it's one of those things where you have to be mentally prepared from the start and there's no way to pave the way there,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff told reporters on Thursday.

Cleveland may be without center Jarrett Allen due to a rib injury that kept him from winning Game 5. Without Allen and his double-double performance in this series (17.0 points and 13.8 rebounds), the Cavs would be forced to rely on 3-point shooting from Mitchell and Garland. The team is the second-worst in the playoffs with 28% shooting from distance.

However the Cavs approach a potentially pivotal game, the Magic know they can adapt.

“Just because you’re home doesn’t mean you can play like you did back then,” Mobley said. “You have to change some of that energy.”

Anna Harden

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