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Season Series: Cavaliers 121, Magic 111 in Cleveland on Dec. 6; Magic 104, Cavaliers 94 in Orlando on Dec. 11; Tonight in Orlando; Feb. 22 in Cleveland
Our Record: 28-15/23-20 ATS
The Orlando Magic finally looked right in their win over the Miami Heat. Franz Wagner's return brought back Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter to the starting lineup. The Magic had their opening night lineup and the ideal lineup they envisioned for the first time since Halloween. It is a minor miracle they have survived this long without it.
With it, the Magic looked refreshed. They were dynamic offensively but, more importantly, they were stifling defensively. The Heat could not find a way through at all. The Magic forced tons of turnovers and deflections and just slowly bled out the Heat to pull away.
One game is great. There was always going to be an energy boost from getting Wagner back in the lineup. Now the team has to do it again and again. That is the challenge and trick of the NBA.
That is something the Cleveland Cavaliers have learned quickly. They are on a seven-game win streak to stake a lead for the 4-seed in the Eastern Conference and separate themselves from the pack. They have done this without Evan Mobley (left knee surgery) and Darius Garland (jaw fracture) -- both remain OUT for Monday's game.
That could have derailed Cleveland's season. Instead the Cavaliers have become more potent defensively and have found their identity. That should make for a tough and interesting battle in this game.
3 Keys to Watch
Wendell Carter's revival
Before his hand injury, everyone was trying to figure out what was wrong with Wendell Carter.
His defensive numbers were all still pretty good. But he was struggling to score and be the presence offensively -- both an inside and outside presence -- that made him the biggest value contract in the league. And a seemingly indispensable player on the roster.
Carter averaged 9.4 points per game and 8.6 rebounds per game while shooting 37.8 percent from the floor and 31.3 percent from deep. Since coming back from his right knee tendinitis, Carter is averaging 19.3 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per game. He is shooting 69.0 percent and 50.0 percent from three.
That is just four games, of course. But Wendell Carter has looked like himself again and that has been a huge boost even before Franz Wagner returned.
The 3-Point Streak
The Cleveland Cavaliers are working right now. They are on a seven-game win streak even with Evan Mobley and Darius Garland out of the lineup. It is the longest win streak in the league right now and it has helped the Cavaliers get some distance for homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
There is still a long way to go.
How are the Cavaliers doing this? It starts with their defense.
They are giving up just 99.6 points per 100 possessions during this win streak. But. . . the only opponent they have faced with a winning record in the last seven games is just the Milwaukee Bucks (a 113-95 win on Wednesday though). The Cavs need to get tested.
But a big part of this streak is their suddenly streaking 3-point shooting. Cleveland is hitting 39.0 percent of their threes during the win streak. Garland's absence has opened the window for Sam Merrill and helped unleash Donovan Mitchell.
The Cavs are a good team. Their win streak is a strong sign of just how good they can be. This is a dangerous team even if they are bit unproven in this recent stretch.
Paolo vs. the Cavs
Paolo Banchero had his breakout game in the Orlando Magic's first meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers this year, scoring 42 points for his first game of 40-plus points in his young career. It was not the last and it certainly will not be the last.
Banchero had 20 points and 10 rebounds in the second meeting, a gritty and defensive-minded Magic win. Banchero does well against the Cavs. Or he has this year.
The question for Banchero is can he do it again? And can he do it with lower volume now that he is no longer carrying the entire team on his back. Banchero is going to have to adjust a bit.
Sunday's win over the Miami Heat was a good bit of progress then. He scored 20 points on 7-for-14 shooting with Jimmy Butler defending him. He still found ways to get involved while adding a lot more on the other end.
Still, everyone knows it will take big games from Banchero to get the Magic where they ultimately want to go.