Playoff Paolo Banchero is born as Orlando Magic fight way back into the series

Paolo Banchero turned on strong performances in his first two Playoff games. But nothing like his Game 3 that was oozing with the star potential that borders on something greater.
Paolo Banchero played the part of the star, stepping up with his first big-time playoff performance to lead the Orlando Magic to a victory.
Paolo Banchero played the part of the star, stepping up with his first big-time playoff performance to lead the Orlando Magic to a victory. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

38. Final. 83. 156. Magic Cavs Final 04.25.24. 121

Paolo Banchero knew exactly when it was going to be his night.

For his first make of the game, he was not even really trying to make the shot. He was trying to get the foul and just threw a shot up wildly at the rim. That it went in was a sign that the basket was going to be pretty wide open.

At that point though, he had missed his first five shots. It felt like a repeat of the first two games as open shots would not fall and the emotion in the crowd seemed to drop with each miss.

Banchero said he was too excited and shot them too strongly as the Magic faced the pressure of getting back into this sereis. But the team needed their star to be aggressive and calm to break free and get a Playoff win.

Paolo Banchero was looking to get to the basket, unafraid of Evan Mobley in front of him and was going to body him up. But Mobley did not give an inch and so Banchero threw it up at the rim.

Playoff Paolo was born Thursday after a 31-point, 13-for-26 shooting effort with 14 rebounds (seven offensive) in less than 30 minutes. The Magic rolled their way back into this series with a 121-83 victory over the Cavaliers in Game 3.

It went in and that is when Banchero knew he had the Cavs. The lid was off the basket for him. He now had his formula as the Magic were not going to back down.

Banchero's legend began to grow the rest of that first quarter. He grabbed six offensive rebounds in total, setting that as a physical tone.

And then came the array of shots. Turnaround fade aways over defenders. Stepping into jumpers and floaters as he played the roller for the first time it seems all series. The Magic were rolling and the confidence was written all over their young star's face.

Banchero spent the third quarter draining jumpers over helpless defenders as the Magic put him in spots he could score and finally hit enough shots to space the floor and let him go to work. He went to work, flexing and pumping up the frenzied Kia Center crowd.

Playoff Paolo was born Thursday after a 31-point, 13-for-26 shooting effort with 14 rebounds (seven offensive) in less than 30 minutes. The Magic rolled their way back into this series with a 121-83 victory over the Cavaliers in Game 3.

Banchero became a star.

"This is really my first taste of big-time basketball in the NBA," Banchero said after Thursday's win. "I'm just trying to embrace it. As a team, we all just look to each other for that confidence and reassurance. I just go around all the time and tell different guys I'm with you. Even if I'm not super vocal, they know I'm going to give my best out there. That's the mentality and it paid off tonight."

Banchero had his teammates. But his teammates had him too, the two feeding off each other's energy and the energy from the home crowd.

The Magic won for a number of reasons on Thursday night. They were the ones finally to hit some shots, going 13 for 37 from three (still just 35.1 percent) while maintaining the lethal defense they played with on the road.

They limited their turnovers -- nine for the game and none from Paolo Banchero or Franz Wagner. They forced 14 turnovers and turned them into 19 points and had 22 fast-break points, pushing the pace off misses.

The Magic were the ones to strike first and take control and the lead. They were the ones to stagger the Cavs and put them on their back heels.

Orlando got contributions from everyone. But the eye always turns to the one who has to get the engine moving. The one whom the defense is putting its focus on slowing down and leaving holes he has to exploit.

Banchero is that guy for this team and everyone knows it. The Cavs spent Games 1 and 2 walling him up and doing whatever they could to keep him from getting to the lane and forcing fouls. They were daring him to trust his teammates as shooters. And when they did not hit they dared him to pass the ball.

Banchero needed a little selfishness to loosen things up. They needed him to step up and hit jumpers to keep the defense honest. And the Magic needed to do a better job getting the ball to Banchero in spots where he could score.

But ultimately, Banchero needed to be aggressive and look for his shots, even if the defense was giving him those inefficient mid-range jumpers. That is the shot he had to make to break the Cavs' spirit.

This is what a star does in the Playoffs. They break spirits and take the tough shots the defense seems OK giving up but helpless to defend. As Cole Anthony put it in the postgame, Paolo Banchero put on a master class of shotmaking.

On Thursday night, a star was born.

"He's a winner," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Thursday's win. "That's who he is. We challenged him today to go after more rebounds and he did it. That's the thing about him. He's going to find whatever is necessary to help his team win. Whatever that looks like, that's the young man he is."

Banchero has always had a sense of destiny about him.

Of the three choices the Magic had on that fateful Draft night in 2022, Banchero is the one who looked the most like a star player. He seemed the one most capable of doing what stars do in these exact moments, eating double teams and still throwing shots in the hoop and finding ways to pace his team.

In a game the Magic had to win to stay alive in the series, Banchero was the base that everything could grow. "The Franchise" as his teammates have come to call him had to step up and be the leader for the team to make the Cavs question their whole strategy.

"The shotmaking, that was pretty special," Franz Wagner said after Thursday's win. "Extremely tough shots. Some against two defenders. Makes the game pretty easy for the rest of us."

That is truly what makes Banchero so difficult. He can beat teams in a variety of ways and now he is more consistently hitting those shots over the defense.

Try doubling? He will send the ball to Wendell Carter in the dunker spot or kick out to a shooter (and pray they make it, which they did Thursday).

Put a smaller defender on him? He would dive to the post and drive to the hoop or spin into an increasingly efficient fadeaway.

Put a bigger defender on him? He will not be afraid to muscle him up either. But he can face up and dance around him with his speed and power.

More importantly, they believed in Banchero to finally break that ceiling on their offense and claim a game in this series.

"I knew I was going to have to stay in attack mode," Banchero said after Thursday's win. "The difference between being down 2-1 and 3-0 is ginormous. I knew this game was a do-or-die game. I didn't want to leave any stone unturned. I wanted to go out and hoop and be aggressive from the start."

Banchero has rewarded the faith the franchise, the fans and his teammates have all had in him. This is the first game in a big moment where Banchero stepped up to the plate and became the player everyone knows he can be.

There are still areas for him to improve. He is only 21 years old after all. But Banchero once again had a game that puts him in the league of some all-time greats -- greats this time like LeBron James and Magic Johnson.

But this is what everyone always imagined for Banchero. And when his team needed him, he delivered a starring performance to reward that belief and faith.

Next. Magic Keep Faith 04.26.24. Orlando Magic keep faith in their process entering Game 3. dark

That, of course, only raises the bar to do it again Saturday to tie the series.