Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic set physical tone in Game 1

Meanwhile on the Cleveland Cavaliers side of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, they entered their series with the Orlando Magic expecting a physical battle and wanting that challenge.
The Cleveland Cavaliers promised to be the more physical team in their return to the Playoffs. The question is how the Orlando Magic will answer.
The Cleveland Cavaliers promised to be the more physical team in their return to the Playoffs. The question is how the Orlando Magic will answer. / David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen joked with reporters before the series began that this series was going to be a defensive battle. He said 85 points was likely going to be enough to win.

Everyone thought it was a hyperbolic joke.

Who is laughing now?

The Cleveland Cavaliers were dominant defensively, holding the Orlando Magic to 83 points in a 97-83 victory. It was a grimy, physical game. The kind of game that you expect in the Playoffs between two of the top defensive teams in the league.

For the Cavs, after last year's Playoff flameout, this was the biggest point they wanted to make and the biggest statement they needed to make. The New York Knicks outmuscled the Cleveland Cavaliers on the interior despite their size advantage in last year's Playoffs. It was the biggest thing the Cavs had to measure up to after last season.

Their whole season was building to this for them. They wanted some form of redemption after their inexperience caught them and cost them in last year's Playoffs.

They wanted to make sure they set a physical tone and welcomed the Magic to the Playoffs. To some extent, that is what they did in Saturday's Game 1win.

"I told you it was going to be a defensive game all throughout," Jarrett Allen said after Saturday's game. "It was physical, nothing was easy for anybody whether it was a layup or even shooting threes everyone has a man on them at all times. That's the way it's going to be all series. It's going to be tough for anybody to score."

Allen famously said the lights were too bright for Cleveland after last year's Playoffs. And while that was ridiculed at the time and throughout the season, he had a point. The Cavs just did not seem prepared for the physicality the playoffs bring.

The whole year, the Cavs spoke about the need to be physical. This game was what their whole season was building toward. This was what they were building to.

The Cavs wanted to throw the first punch and they landed a big one at the Magic that the Magic struggled to recover from throughout the game. Orlando is just not a team that can afford to be playing from a hole with how much their offense struggled Saturday and is expected to struggle.

Cleveland was in control, exactly how the team wanted.

"I thought we did what we needed to do," Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after Saturday's game. "I thought we stood our ground first and foremost but we didn't allow ourselves to get caught up in the [stuff]. We continued to play good basketball, share the ball, execute the things we needed to do. I thought that was their intent was to disrupt the game and our guys didn't take the bait."

The "stuff" Bickerstaff was referring to came in the second quarter when Markelle Fultz gave a hard foul to Georges Niang in transition that was upgraded to a flagrant foul. Niang got in Fultz's face for a technical foul and the two teams jawed at each other for much of the rest of the game. The chippiness continued when Moe Wagner got a hard foul on a Cavs player and Isaac Okoro gave him a shoulder bump as they walked across.

Wagner got booed the entire rest of the game (it would probably only get worse if they realized he was wearing the Michigan colorways of his shoes that he has worn since the Wolverines' national championship in January).

The Magic were up to the physical challenge too after that initial burst of shot-making from the Cavs. Orlando held Cleveland to just 40 points in the middle two quarters. Jalen Suggs said after practice Sunday that Orlando felt like the game came down to their shot-making and little things they know they can improve.

That was no surprise to the Cavs either. And they are expecting the Magic to respond in Game 2.

"They have a bunch of guys who can be physical," Donovan Mitchell said after Saturday's game. "We knew that. I think the biggest thing now, especially learning from last year obviously, is how do you handle it? How do you continue to push through? It's nothing malicious. It's just playoff basketball. I think we're mentally ready for it and equipped for it. Now it's continually doing it on a night-to-night basis. This doesn't come as a shock to us. When a team is physical, you still have to find ways to execute. We didn't for a little bit, but we found it. You give them credit, they did a good job. We did a good job too fighting through the physicality."

This will be the question the Magic have to answer now too. How do they respond to the Cavs' physicality? How do they find the will to execute and keep pressure on through the tough defense Cleveland will play?

The Cavs figured that out in Game 1 and the Magic did not.

The question the Cavs faced entering the series is the same question the Magic face now. Can they fight through the physicality that is ever-present in these games? The team that is more aggressive and physical, dictating the terms of the game, is the one that is going to win.

"That's what this is about," Bickerstaff said after Saturday's game. "That's the maturation of this basketball team. It's one of the things we've been talking about. You go through experience and then you add experience like we did. It adds maturity. You understand what the moment is and you understand how to play forcefully but still play basketball and get the job done."

A lot of the Magic players spoke about how the game turned on things they could control. It was about their missed free throws as much as their missed threes. It was about winning 50/50 balls and long rebounds -- Cleveland had a 75.0 percent defensive rebound rate compared to Orlando's 71.7 percent rate. There are plenty of margins the Magic can make up to get that game back.

Cleveland wanted to play physical, but Orlando matched that physicality too. The game is on.

"These are the games that are fun," Allen said after Saturday's game. "You can get away with a lot more than you are supposed to. That's what the playoffs are all about. Everyone is playing at 110 percent. It doesn't matter if you have been on the bench for however long. You are coming in ready to hit somebody. I just find joy in how everyone is so locked in."

Next. OMD Roundtable Series Prediction 04.21.24. OMD Roundtable: Magic-Cavs Keys and Series Predictions. dark

It seems the team that embraces the physical nature of these games is going to be the one to win.