Orlando Magic have to find themselves first before digging out of 2-0 hole

The Orlando Magic have run into a brick wall in their Playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The joy, fight and exuberance that defined this team is quickly getting suffocated.
The Orlando Magic are struggling to do the things that led them to the Playoffs and they have not been able to find a way around it.
The Orlando Magic are struggling to do the things that led them to the Playoffs and they have not been able to find a way around it. / David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Magic Cavs Game 2 Final 04.22.24. 96. 156. Final. 86. 38

The pin dropped for the Orlando Magic fairly early in the first quarter.

Donovan Mitchell was hitting 3-pointers and putting the Magic's defense in a blender, getting downhill and forcing movement and rotations. The Magic were in complete scramble mode early. Their defense was struggling to settle in and get stops. The offense was keeping its head above water.

The same problem from Game 1 persisted. The Magic could not hit a shot to save their lives, missing two wide-open threes on their first possessions to preview another difficult night from the outside.

The Cavs closed the quarter on a 14-5 run after Jalen Suggs left the game with a left knee sprain. He would return, but the damage was done. Cleveland led by 12 and never really looked back in a 96-86 victory in Game 2 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

The Cavaliers slowly squeezed the life out of the Magic as they built that double-digit lead.

Orlando could not hit the shots to get back into the game and all the things the team did to stay in games despite its poor shooting throughout the season were suddenly locked away.

In short: This is not fun. This is not the joy and bravado that characterized the Magic through the regular season. This is not the way the Magic played to earn the 5-seed. They are struggling to find that spark offensively again.

This is not who the Magic are in many ways. And to find their way out of this 2-0 hole, they first have to find themselves.

"I would say they are doing a good job clogging lanes, packing the paint, swarming the ball any time you drive. It makes it hard," Paolo Banchero said after Monday's loss. "We've got to make shots. It's the name of the game."

The keys to Magic victories all season has been quite simple: Win the paint, dominate the glass, defend and force turnovers, and limit their own mistakes.

Orlando may be doing these in bits and pieces -- they got 26 free throws and made only 19 but Cleveland made only 16 of its 26. But the broad strokes that make the Magic go are simply not there through two games in this series.

The Cavaliers won the paint 36-32 with both teams struggling to shoot. The series has lived up to its defensive billing. But the Magic are accustomed to scoring 50-plus points in the paint. Even against an elite defensive team like the Cavaliers, the Magic have to be living in the paint to find open shooters and power their offense.

Orlando is seemingly turning away from the interior over and over again. The tam has not been able to attack.

"I think that's their gameplan, right," Franz Wagner said after Monday's game. "I think we could get to the second or third side to get into the paint. But they do a pretty good job of always having someone in there. They are really good at protecting the rim. Just continuing to move the ball and move bodies so they can't just sit in the paint."

They just are not at the moment with the Cavs constantly putting three or four players in the paint to wall off Banchero from getting inside or with the versatility and size that Wagner has struggled to get around. Banchero scored 21 points on 9-for-20 shooting and Wagner had 18 points on 5-for-17 shooting.

Both of them had six turnovers each as they struggled to create movement and penetration. They are trying to put the team in its usual positions to score. There is just no room.

Orlando has been able to work around its poor shooting all season with this paint attack. In the playoffs, the team just cannot find relief from the perimeter to get back to their core identity.

The Cavs have taken that away and there has been no relief.

"It's hard when you're not making shots," Suggs said after Monday's loss. "I'm going to say it again, it's the nature of the sport. You can do everythign right sometimes nad get the best look you can get in the possession and it doesn't drop. You've got to continue to trust that process over the moment. We have to continue to do that. I think we're doing the right things, the thought process is right, the intention is right. We've just got to execute and finish the plays that we're making for each other."

Jonathan Isaac, essentially in the starting lineup to be an automatic floor spacer and draw Jarrett Allen away from the basket, made only one of seven threes. Wendell Carter came off the bench to shoot 1 for 6. Suggs, who returned in the second half despite the knee sprain in the first quarter, missed all three of his looks.

Without consistent outside threats, the Cavs are just putting the vice grips on the Magic's offense.

Orlando is stuck in the mud and even their elite-level defense is not finding its footing fast enough to put them in a position to win. Everything is an uphill climb.

That is just hard to do in the Playoffs and so the Magic are searching for something to work. They are looking for some way to take advantage of their size and length and free up their stars to get their pet shots. They are looking for the spark that propelled them to the Playoffs.

Orlando's defense found itself again and kept the door open for a comeback as the Magic cut the lead to 10 with 4.5 minutes to play. But the team's offense continues to hold it back -- perhaps as expected.

The margin for error is too small for this team trying to climb uphill without this core identity in place. Something is clearly missing from this series so far.

"That big momentum shift with a big shot being made," coach Jamahl Mosley said of what the team is missing after Monday's loss. "I think that turns into a lot of it. We go on a run and we get great looks and they don't drop. That's some of the momentum. They do a great job of packing that paint in so as you are attacking and you are seeing bodies, you spray it out. We still have to be willing and confident enough to shoot the basketball. But that is a lot of times what happens in those momentum swings."

Game 2 was again simply one of frustration for the Magic. They could not find the joy and spark that has made this team beloved and powered it into the 5-seed.

All Orlando can do is keep guarding and hope the defense gives it a chance to race into the lead. That is core to the team's identity and that has at least found itself despite the lulls that put the team in the hole.

Orlando's defense has again proven up to snuff for the most part -- it is what the team thought it was, as Banchero said. But it is not going to win a game on its own. That is the biggest lesson for the Magic.

"I think naturally it is human nature to be frustrated especially losing the games and not shooting well is always really tough," Suggs said after Monday's game. "It doesn't make sense to let two two-hour-long games weigh more than what we've done for an entire season. Just continue to believe in ourselves, believe in the work, stay gameplan disciplined and keep shooting the shots."

But the Cavs are choking out the Magic by choking out that lifeline in the paint. The Playoffs do overshadow a lot of things and teach the team a ton of lessons. Orlando is learning a lot about its roster and its shortcomings during this postseason.

This is just not Magic basketball or their formula for success despite long stretches where they defend well. And for Orlando to get back into this series, the team has to get back to winning the areas it dominated throughout the season to get to this point.

Next. Magic physicality 04.20.24. Orlando Magic will need to win the physical battle against Cavs. dark

The Magic have to find themselves again.