Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense stifling Orlando Magic

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JUST 90 SECONDS into Monday’s Game 2 of their first-round series, the Cleveland Cavaliers had already set the tone against the Orlando Magic.

Magic guard Jalen Suggs attempted to pull up for a 3-pointer at the top of the arc. Sensing Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen closing, Suggs took two steps toward the bucket but backed out with Allen on his hip. The 6-foot-5 Suggs sized up the 6-9 Allen and tried again. With no success, Suggs threaded the needle to forward Franz Wagner, who went up for a layup. But 6-11 Cleveland forward Evan Mobley was waiting. Guard Max Strus tipped the loose ball to teammate Darius Garland and the Cavs were out in transition.

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It was an early example of the smothering defense that has helped give Cleveland a 2-0 advantage in the series. The Cavs are the first team to allow fewer than 90 points in their first two games of a postseason series since the San Antonio Spurs in the 2017 first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Cavs have limited the Magic to 34.4% shooting from the field, the fourth worst by any team through the first two games of the playoffs in the past 60 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“We did a great job of forcing them to the shots that we wanted and conceding nothing, and that’s one of our messages,” Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff said after Monday’s win. “Very few of the shots that they took tonight weren’t contested, and the majority of ’em were highly contested.”

Cleveland’s frontcourt duo of Allen and Mobley have made it especially difficult on Orlando’s offense. On Monday, the Magic shot 7-of-25 when contested by either big man. For the series, Orlando is just 13-of-50 from the floor against them, including 2-of-15 from 3.

It’s been a particularly productive series for Allen, who on Monday became just the third player in Cavaliers history to record at least 20 rebounds in a playoff game, joining Kevin Love and Brad Daugherty. Allen also became the first player in franchise history to have back-to-back 15-point, 15-rebound games in the playoffs.

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Allen’s physicality — especially on the defensive end — has been a stark contrast to his publicized struggles in the postseason last year. This time, Allen has been a key reason why the Cavs are keeping the Magic’s offense at bay.

“We knew that this series was going to be won in the interior. We knew that we were going to have to do a great job on the boards in back-to-back nights,” Bickerstaff said. “He’s taken it upon himself to make sure we win that battle. We’re not here without his effort.”


ALLEN HAD A proclamation heading into Monday’s Game 2: “First to 85” wins.

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The series — with final scores of 97-83 and 96-86 so far — is the lowest-scoring one through two games in the past five postseasons.

“I just want to say I told you so,” Allen said with a grin after Monday’s win. “It’s going to be a very defensive-minded series. “And let’s just keep it that way.”

For Allen, it’s been an opportunity to shed a label after last season’s first-round series loss to the New York Knicks that he couldn’t produce when it mattered most. As he put it after the series ended, “The lights were brighter than expected.”

The Knicks dominated the Cavs on the glass in that five-game series 227-186 with Allen at the forefront of the struggles. He had trouble containing New York center Mitchell Robinson, who finished second in the league in offensive boards last season. Allen’s defensive rebounding average dipped from 6.5 during the regular season to 4.4 in the series.

Now, Allen is averaging 13.0 defensive boards against the Magic, while also holding them to 4-for-12 shooting within 10 feet when he’s the contesting defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“I’m more comfortable with how I approach the game [than last postseason]. I am more comfortable with my role, knowing what I have to do every night. I guess I feel more grounded,” Allen said. “I know who I am as a person.

“But I know it’s still the reputation — that has still not changed. We’re only two games in. Do we want to change it as a team? Probably. We want to be known as a team that will go out there and fight every single night.”

The team is also fighting to reclaim a defense that propelled it to second in the Eastern Conference standings at the All-Star break, with a defensive rating (110.3) that ranked second in the league. But that rating slipped significantly during the latter half of the season. The team’s post All-Star defensive rating (115.5) ranked sixth worst in the league, and the worst of any playoff team.

The Cavs spent the week leading up to the playoffs watching film and going over defensive schemes. Bickerstaff hounded Allen and Mobley on how their presence in the paint, particularly on the boards, would be the X factor. During practice, if anyone missed a rebound or a rotation or missed a defensive read, Bickerstaff stopped the drill. They would run it again until it was “perfect,” he said.

“We didn’t have many practice days. So inevitably without practice, you have slippage,” Bickerstaff said of Cleveland’s final month of the regular season. “But I think that week gave us an opportunity to really sit down and practice and find our habits again.”


It’s not only the paint defense that’s thriving for the Cavs, but it’s also their defending the perimeter.

The Magic are shooting 25.3% on jumpers in this series, their worst field goal percentage over a two-game span this season.

And while forwards Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner are scoring just below their regular-season averages, the Cavs have found success in taking Orlando’s two leading scorers out of their offensive rhythm.

“Those guys had six turnovers [in Game 2],” Bickerstaff said. “So we’ve done the job of shrinking the floor, making ’em take tough shots.”

Strus said the key to defending the perimeter is controlling the tempo. If anyone not in the paint gets a Magic player into an undesirable look, that forces him to feed it down low.

“Then, it’s making our bigs do the rest of the work,” Strus told ESPN. “We got two of the best centers in the game [in Allen and Mobley], and they are huge. I’m lucky in that regard to have those guys behind me.”

Even when Mobley and Strus are subbed out, reserves Isaac Okoro and Caris LeVert have provided seamless defensive support.

“When you can change coverages — you can switch, you can drop, you can hedge and show — you can do different things when you have two guys like that,” Cavs All-Star Donovan Mitchell said. “It definitely allows us to kind of manipulate the lineups and throw different looks at people.”

As the series shifts to Orlando for Thursday’s Game 3, the Cavs are bracing for the Magic’s offense to bounce back. But Cleveland knows its defense will make the trip, too.

“It’s keeping the ‘want to,'” Strus said. “[The] desire to make a stop and take on that individual challenge. We have a lot of guys on this team that are willing to do that.”



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