2023 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: Cleveland Cavaliers’ size didn’t show up

Apr 21, 2023; New York, New York, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley (4) drives to the basket against New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) and forward Julius Randle (30) during the first quarter of game three of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 21, 2023; New York, New York, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley (4) drives to the basket against New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) and forward Julius Randle (30) during the first quarter of game three of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

For the entire season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were a juggernaut in the entire league.

Their interior defense was something very few teams could measure up to.

Evan Mobley is a defensive wonder, able to protect the rim, defend the post and guard on the perimeter. That earned him serious consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. He had backup with Jarrett Allen too who could protect the rim just as ably.

Adding Donovan Mitchell to the young group that included a budding young star in Darius Garland and some key role players.

The Cavaliers had a dream season, climbing to fourth in the Eastern Conference. This young team was coming together.

At the very least, this seemed like the path that every young team could take. The Cavaliers were clearly the future, fostering and growing a culture internally before adding to it with that last piece to get over the top.

As everyone is noting after losing in the first round, postseason defeats are part of the journey.

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ postseason defeat provides a key lesson for a young Orlando Magic team that also has size but may lack interior strength when the chips are down.

But the Cavaliers’ defeat was completely total in a way that was shocking. The things the Cleveland Cavaliers had been so good at — their defense, rebounding and interior defense — were just completely broken down in the first-round series with the New York Knicks.

Especially the two big men that seemed to set the Cavaliers apart and give them size shrunk in the postseason. The Cavaliers got punked, to use the colloquial.

It is an important lesson for the Orlando Magic, especially as the postseason and postseason play come to focus.

Size is important. It sets a team apart and gives them an advantage. But size is not enough. You have to play big too. Big in the stereotypical ways — getting rebounds and protecting the paint. That is where the Cavaliers and the Magic may have some concerns moving forward.

The Cavaliers in their playoff series were big and tall. . . but they did not play that way. And the Knicks pummeled them for it.

It cannot be understated how shocking the turnaround for the Cavaliers was in their playoff series.

For the season, Cleveland finished at the top of the league in defensive rating at 109.9 points per 100 possessions. The Cavaliers were the only team to finish with a defensive rating better than 110.0.

That is a credit to the defensive presence that Mobley and Allen provided. But there was a weakness embedded within them. The Cavaliers were not a good rebounding team. And that is exactly what the Knicks exploited in their series.

Cleveland ranked 20th in the league in defensive rebound percentage, grabbing only 71.5 percent of their defensive rebound opportunities.

That did not matter so much because, in the regular season, the Cavaliers were able to recover, giving up only 12.1 second-chance points per game (fourth in the league) and also 46.3 points in the paint per game (third in the league).

The Cavaliers may have given up their share of offensive rebounds, but teams did not exploit them for it.

That is what completely changed in the playoffs against the Knicks. The Knicks had an offensive rebound rate of 39.4 percent. That number is simply insane and the Cavaliers were the worst rebounding team in the playoffs during their five-game series.

The Knicks scored 18.2 second-chance points per game (the second-worst mark defensively in the postseason) and 46.4 points in the paint per game. These second-chance points counteracted whatever defensive advantage the team had.

That is not a dramatic increase in points in the paint, but the MVP of the series was Mitchell Robinson with 5.8 offensive rebounds per game in the series. He made both Mobley and Allen look very very small. That duo averaged only 17.4 rebounds per game total in the postseason and 19.2 points per game in the series. Neither hit 10.0 points per game.

It was stunning to see the two struggle as much as they did. And everyone on the Cavaliers did. Their heartbeat was their big men and they were completely taken out of the series and beat up physically.

That is something the Cavaliers will have to reckon with this offseason. They can certainly chalk it up some to playoff inexperience. Mobley will be better in his second postseason experience. But they do have to consider whether there is something deeper and more troubling about their future prospects.

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These struggles certainly should reverberate and teach a lesson to the Magic too.

Orlando has a similar problem of being a big team that does not actually play big. And they too have some statistics that would seemingly break under some scrutiny.

The Magic finished the season ranked eighth in the league in defensive rebound rate at 73.0 percent. The Magic finished 18th overall in defensive rating at 113.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. But from Dec. 7 to the end of the season, the Magic ranked sixth in defensive rating at 113.0 points allowed per 100 possessions and sixth in defensive rebound rate at 73.4 percent.

But Orlando still struggled with the offensive rebounds the team gave up. The Magic gave up 13.5 second-chance points per game (15th in the league). That was consistent throughout the whole season.

Orlando seemingly has the opposite problem of Cleveland. By the numbers, the Magic are a good rebounding team that gives up more second-chance points than you would expect whereas the Cavaliers are a bad rebounding team that prevented second-chance points in the regular season.

The end result in the playoffs would likely be the same. The team would give up critical offensive rebounds and second-chance points to teams willing to work harder than them.

The Magic rebounded well but were not always a great rebounding team. They are certainly not full of great rebounders individually.

Wendell Carter may be one of the few exceptions on the team. He grabbed 43.5 percent of his rebounds as contested rebounds according to Second Spectrum. Contested rebounds are one of the few areas where Carter is not rated in the 90th percentile or better according to Basketball-Index — 78th percentile still.

The Magic do not have many other great rebounders though.

Rebounding was one of the biggest areas Paolo Banchero struggled. While he improved as the season went on, it was clear it was an area that Banchero had to focus throughout the season.

He finished with just 2.0 contested rebounds per game this year (29.0 percent of his total defensive rebounds). He rated in the 56th percentile in the league according to Basketball-Index in contested rebound percentage.

The Magic were a good rebounding team, but rebounding remains a big concern for this team. Orlando, like Cleveland is tall and big, but the team does not use its height in the ways that matter to win Playoff games.

That is what the Cavaliers learned in a big moment in losing their playoff series. And one of the big questions they face this offseason.

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It might also be a question the Magic have to think about as they prepare for their own postseason run.