Paolo Banchero

Orlando Magic at Cleveland Cavaliers: Game 1 Preview

Dan Savage
Director of Digital News

CLEVELAND – The Orlando Magic celebrated their 35th anniversary this season by bringing back legendary players, retiring Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 32 jersey, paying tribute to iconic uniforms, and reliving some of top moments of their past.

Now, as Orlando enters the 2024 postseason, it’s hoping to replicate one of the most memorable playoff series in franchise history.

As the fifth-seeded Magic head out on the road and get set to square off with the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET, they’re looking to steal a page out of their history books.

Orlando would be more than happy to replicate its performance from the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals – the last time these two teams met in the postseason – by getting off to a hot start and claiming a Game 1 victory.

“Us being able to get (to Cleveland) and play that first game is going to be so important,” said Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley. “(It will help) these guys understand exactly what’s necessary to come out and put yourself in a position to be successful.”

The Magic and Cavaliers met four times during their season series and split the results. In both of Cleveland’s season-series victories, it shot over 50 percent from the field and put up over 120 points. Meanwhile, in Orlando’s two triumphs, it excelled on the defensive end. In one of those wins, the Magic held the Cavs under 100 points. In the other, they forced Cleveland to commit 19 turnovers, which led to 28 Orlando points. In that same game, the Magic’s bench gave them a big boost, outscoring the Cavs 63-24. Orlando would gladly take any of those numbers in their upcoming contests in Cleveland.

“They’re an extremely physical team with a similar makeup to us,” said Magic forward Franz Wagner. “They’re a tall team that plays really physical on defense … We split the season series 2-2, so it should be a really fun (playoff) series.”

Orlando is well aware that for it to earn a Game 1 victory, it all starts at the defensive end of the floor. The Magic dropped three of their final four contests to close out the 2023-24 regular season campaign. The common theme in those three defeats? They gave up at least 117 points in all of them. However, Orlando responded with its back up against the wall in its high-stakes season finale. The Magic held the Bucks to 88 points – a season-low for Milwaukee – as they cruised to a 25-point victory to clinch a playoff berth, lock up the fifth seed, and claim the Southeast Division title. Orlando finished the season with a 21-2 mark when it holds its opponent under 100 points, and that will once again be a key as it preps for a hard-fought series against Cleveland.

The Magic’s defensive attack in this series will be led by Jonathan Isaac and Jalen Suggs. Orlando opted to start the 6-foot-11 Isaac in its season finale – just his second start of his 2023-24 campaign – and he delivered by giving the Bucks’ offense fits. Not only did he do a tremendous job on Bobby Portis Jr., who was his primary defensive assignment, but he also locked down Damian Lillard nearly every time Milwaukee went to the pick-and-roll or looked for a switch for the eight-time All-Star guard. On the season, when Isaac contested a shot, opponents shot just 37.1 percent, which ranked fourth best among the 333 players that contested at least 200 shots. It was the best mark among non-guards.

“I just try to do my job,” Isaac explained. “No matter who they put me on, no matter who they want me to cover, my job is to make it as difficult as possible on (the opponent). I’ve had to guard really great players this season, and sometimes they score, sometimes they don’t. When they do score, I tip my hat, and do it again the next possession. That’s my mindset. I want to be an anchor for this team defensively.”

Suggs’ on-the-ball defense, meanwhile, will be crucial against a Cleveland club that has two perimeter players capable of dominating games in Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. So, Orlando will turn to its NBA All-Defensive-Team-caliber guard to slow them down. If he can be disruptive, stay out of foul trouble, and knock down his open shots from distance this series, he can help turn the tide in favor of Orlando.

“We understand that they’re the heads of the snakes,” said Suggs of Cleveland’s backcourt duo. “They’re the two that are going to have the ball in their hands the majority of the game. We understand that they have great pieces around them, they have players with great abilities, but those are the two. The (Cavs) go as far as they go. So, I think it’s a great challenge.”

On the offensive end, all eyes will be on Orlando’s two-headed monster of NBA All-Star Paolo Banchero and third-year standout Franz Wagner. This season, Banchero became the youngest player in NBA history to lead his team in scoring, rebounding and assists in a single season. Wagner, meanwhile, finished second in all of those categories.

“Getting off to (good) starts will be the main focus heading into Games 1 and 2 on the road,” said Banchero. “Not fall into a hole early (and) start the game off well.”

When the Cavs decide to clog the paint, throw zone defense looks at the Magic, or send doubles to Banchero and Wagner, they’ll also need to make them pay and hit a decent amount of their open looks.

“We know that we’re capable of making threes,” said Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. “But we know what our superpower is throughout the year. So, we try to put a lot of emphasis (on getting into the paint). In this series, we understand that they’re going to clog the paint a lot with that being our superpower. So, when we get open shots, just take them. That’s kind of been the theme.”

IN AND OUT: Orlando has a clean bill of health entering the postseason.

For Cleveland, Ty Jerome (right ankle; surgery), Craig Porter Jr. (left ankle; sprain), and Dean Wade (right knee; sprain) are out.

RIVALS REPORT: In order to prepare for this playoff matchup, we caught up with’s Matt Gold. He was able to provide us with some tremendous insight into Cleveland’s perspective heading into this four-five series showdown.

Savage: “Both teams had an up-and-down finish to the regular season. How do the Cavs get fully back on track in the playoffs?”

Gold: “By having a five-or-six-day break between the last regular season game and the first game of Round 1. Also, not traveling. Cleveland’s schedule to end the regular season was chock-full of games in different cities, having not played a game in the same city consecutively from March 11 to April 6. The stretch this week with not having to play a game and get on a flight right after allows the Cavs to rest up for Round 1, along with focus on getting healthy (more on that later).

It gives Cleveland a chance to do some fine-tuning, too. After the All-Star Break, the Cavs held just two opponents to under 100 points – the injury-riddled Grizzlies and the top-pick hopeful Hornets. That has been a staple for the Cavs and J.B. Bickerstaff the past couple of seasons, and they'll look to up the intensity on that end of the floor come Saturday.”

Savage: “Cleveland and Orlando split the four-game regular season series. What worked and what didn’t during those four?”

Gold: “In the two games the Cavs won during the regular season series, there was production from up and down the lineup. On Dec. 6, Donovan Mitchell scored 35 points and Darius Garland scored 26 to go with nine assists and zero turnovers. Evan Mobley, Max Strus, and Georges Niang were also in double-figures. On Jan. 22, without Garland and Mobley, Sam Merrill went 8-13 from deep, finishing with 26 points; Mitchell had 25 and a career-high 13 assists; Jarrett Allen doubled-up for a franchise-record 12th game in a row.

In the two games the Cavs lost, it was the opposite. Dec. 11, Garland had 36 points and Mitchell had 22. No other Cav had more than 10, with Georges Niang going 0-10 from the floor. Feb. 22, playing without Mitchell, three starters scored 18, but the bench had 24 combined points.

Cleveland did a fine job on Paolo Banchero in the four games. He dropped 42 points in a loss and didn’t score more than 20 in any of the other three outings.”

Savage: “The paint will be a point of emphasis for both teams in this one. How do you think the painted area will help determine the series?”

Gold: “The focal point of Cleveland’s defense is the interior. When you have two seven-footers who are elite at blocking and altering shots, why wouldn’t it be?

The matchup between Mobley and Banchero should be a fun one, as both are built differently and have different styles of play. Mobley is long and lanky and can cause problems with his defensive reach anywhere on the court. Banchero is bulkier and stronger who can get to his spot inside or in the midrange. Mobley and Allen need to stay out of foul trouble on the defensive end when guarding Banchero and when Moe Wagner checks into the game.”

Savage: “What player should fans keep an eye on while watching this series?”

Gold: “It’s Donovan Mitchell. Sure, maybe it’s the easy answer, but he is the one that really makes the Cavs go, and that was showing over the last handful of weeks during the season when he was in and out of the lineup with a knee and nose injury. In the last two games he played, Spida looked like the Spida we know and have gotten accustomed to seeing.

His explosiveness and quickness came back, he was more aggressive when he had the ball in his hands and attacking the basket. He had 29 points on 9-17 shooting (5-10 from deep), eight assists, and three steals against Memphis. That was followed up with a 33-point, five-assist, four-steal night against the Pacers to clinch a playoff spot, making 12 shots, including four triples.

This version of the five-time all-star is what the Wine & Gold will need in order to advance out of the first round this year.”

Savage: “In your opinion, what do the Cavs need to do in order to win this series?”

Gold: “Cleveland needs to protect the paint and be physical without fouling, something that may be able to happen more now that we are in the playoffs. The more jumpers Orlando has to take, the better. The Magic take the second-fewest threes per game and connect on 35.2 percent of them, 24th in the league.

Ball movement on offense is key for the Wine & Gold to unlock what the full potential of the offense could be, and that starts with Garland and Mitchell. With most of the defense's eyes on them, shots for guys like Max Strus, Georges Niang, and Caris LeVert will open up, along with looks inside to Mobley and Allen. When shots are going in and the ball isn’t sticking, the Cavs are tough to keep up with on offense with the shooting and depth on the roster.”

Savage: “What do you think is the biggest question mark for Cleveland heading into this series?

Gold: “It has to be the general health of the team. Mitchell seems to be back on the right track after his late-season showings. Craig Porter Jr. sprained his ankle in the finale and is a question mark while Dean Wade has not played since March 8 with a knee problem. He seems to be a doubt, especially in the early going.

On the floor, the biggest question is if Cleveland can find the rhythm it had in the hot streak to start the New Year. Strong defensive performances, lots of assists, and lots of three-point shots while getting valuable minutes from the rotation players.”

Savage: “This Cavs' core group got a taste of the postseason last year against the Knicks, also in a four-five matchup. What were their big takeaways from that series, and how could that experience help them this time around?”

Gold: “The biggest takeaway was the physicality and intensity of the playoffs, along with the experience the young core has now gained.

On the physicality and intensity part, that has been preached and talked about all week at Cleveland Clinic Courts. Darius Garland noted in Thursday’s practice that everyone is locked in and that there is a certain sense of intensity around the team. The Wine & Gold know what time it is and what to expect – from the opponent, the atmosphere, the way the games are called.

For the experience part, that was addressed over the summer, by adding Strus, Niang, Tristan Thompson, and signing Marcus Morris Sr. in March. All four of those guys have been in the playoffs and have experienced high levels of success in the spring and summer. Thompson and Garland have a strong relationship, and that should only help DG this time around.

This year, though, the Cavs are in the opposite position from last year against the Knicks, where the Cavs did not have the experience. Now they do, and the Magic do not.”