'That's all we've known growing up': Chippiness fueling Magic's playoff run

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AS HALFTIME APPROACHED in Wednesday’s Game 5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Moritz Wagner was fed up with the boos.

They began in earnest within the first minute of the second quarter when the Orlando Magic center stepped up to the line after drawing a foul off Cavs counterpart Tristan Thompson. The jeers turned to cheers when Wagner missed the first of his two shots.

The boos ramped up again with 8:11 left in the quarter as Wagner exchanged words with Thompson after another foul that sent him to the line. The crowd at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse loudly approved when Wagner again clanked his first shot.

With 5:53 left before the half, Wagner swished in a 3-pointer from the top of the arc. As he jogged back, the 6-11 big man formed his hand into three fingers, brought them to his lips and blew a kiss to the crowd.

It’s been a tenuous relationship between Wagner and the Cavs home crowd since the beginning of the series. In Game 1, Wagner reached for a loose ball with his right hand while shoving Cavs forward Evan Mobley out of bounds with his left. As he walked away and bumped into Cavs guard Darius Garland, Wagner turned toward his teammates on the bench and clapped several times. Isaac Okoro then purposely bumped into Wagner, which drew a technical foul on the Cavs forward and the ire of the crowd.

On the Magic’s next offensive possession, Wagner secured an offensive rebound off Joe Ingles’ missed shot. He finished the play with a put-in and turned to his bench again.

“With a crazy face, he’s got spit coming down his chin, and just yelled ‘I’m built for this.’ I love it,” Orlando guard Jalen Suggs told ESPN. “As soon as he came over I told him ‘I like you like this.’

“To me, that’s free motivation, free gas. When you see a teammate doing something like that, you have no choice but to stand on that yourself.”

No road team has won a game in this feisty first-round series. Following the 104-103 loss in Game 5, the Magic are down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series and now face a must-win Game 6 on Friday in Orlando (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

To force a Game 7 back in Cleveland, the Magic need to rely on what helped them clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2020: tough defense, rebounding, a core of young players — and a bit of on-court chirping.

“It’s obvious I’m embracing it. It’s clear that I’m enjoying it as well,” Wagner told ESPN. “But I always have a problem with myself — I don’t want to get caught up in it too much.

“If the stuff around I can use as a productive instrument, I will do that for sure. But it’s very important for me to always be aware of my surroundings and not get caught up in that.”

IN MULTIPLE PRACTICES this season, the Magic have cut live drills short because they got too physical. The trash talk between them has been relentless. They go through five-on-five sessions as if they were in a real game.

“That’s all we’ve known growing up — talking trash, and physicality, but everyone embraces it in this series,” Suggs said. “The very first game when we felt it and it went that way, we were like perfect. That’s exactly what we wanted.”

However, the Magic understand those emotions can’t get in the way of their current objective — winning a playoff series for the first time since reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2010.

“It’s what makes this group special. But it’s also what makes each individual who they are,” Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley told ESPN. “You have to allow these young men to be who they are at any given moment.”

Mosley credited the 36-year-old Ingles, now in his ninth season in the NBA, with instilling some chippiness into the team’s practices early in the season and how to best respond to it.

“He was trying to push buttons and they needed that. They need to know when you go against an opponent they are going to do the same thing,” Mosley said. “You have to be prepared for it.”

Against Cleveland, the Magic have relied on the type of physical play that’s produced a defense ranked second in efficiency this postseason, allowing 93.8 points per game.

Despite holding the Cavs to under 100 points in the first four games of the series, it’s been a learning curve for the second youngest team in the playoffs (behind the West’s No. 1 seed Oklahoma City Thunder). Three players in the Magic’s starting lineup — Suggs, Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner — are all 22 years or younger and playing in their first postseason series.

“When anything is a first, you want to take everything in,” Suggs said of the losses in Games 1 and 2. “I caught myself a couple times just looking around the arena, really paying attention to what’s going on the screen and all the sounds and noises and the fans.”

In Games 3 and 4 in Orlando, the Magic nabbed double-digit wins in part due to their young stars’ improved play and elite rebounding. During the regular season, the Magic ranked seventh in offensive rebounding percentage. In those wins, the Magic outscored the Cavaliers by 23 second-chance points.

It also helped that Banchero, the top pick of the 2022 draft, found his rhythm after committing 15 turnovers in Games 1 and 2. In the Game 3 win, he scored 31 points and grabbed 14 boards to become the youngest player with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and no turnovers in a playoff game in NBA history.

Franz Wagner followed with a similar performance in Game 4 — his 34 points and 13 rebounds made him and Banchero the first pair of teammates to each have a turnover-free 30-point, 10-rebound game in the same series.

With the series back in Orlando, Mosley wants his team to be aware of how to balance an elimination game with their established way of playing.

“It’s important to toe the line, but don’t cross it. You want to do what’s right for the team,” Mosley said. “You are getting hyped, you’re getting aggressive, doing those things to get everybody into it, I love that. But you’ve got to know what your point of stopping is.”

SUGGS LAMENTED HE missed out on a “silence the crowd moment” when Franz Wagner’s layup was blocked in the final seconds of Friday’s one-point loss in Cleveland. But the Magic know they’ve been a far better home team this season than on the road.

With a 26-12 record at Kia Center, their 12.4 point differential between home and road is the second-largest in the NBA this season, trailing only the Utah Jazz.

“We have a higher sense of urgency playing at home,” Suggs told reporters Thursday.

The Magic will need to continue limiting All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, who only averaged 15.5 points per game in the Cavs’ previous two losses in Orlando. And the Magic must control the boards, with Cleveland grabbing just seven offensive rebounds in the two games. Suggs’ defense has been particularly effective as the Cavs have shot 7-for-38 (18%) when he is the primary defender.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that is the lowest field goal percentage any defender has allowed in the postseason. Specifically, Suggs has forced Mitchell into more turnovers (five) than made field goals (4-for-22 in the series) when defending him.

“It’s going to be a physical game. We expect that, but it’s one of those things where mentally you got to be prepared from the start and there’s no smoothing your way into this one,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff told reporters Thursday.

Cleveland may be without center Jarrett Allen due to a rib injury that kept him out of the Game 5 win. Being without Allen and his double-double output this series (17.0 points and 13.8 rebounds) would force the Cavs to rely on 3-point shooting from Mitchell and Garland. The team is second-worst in the playoffs with 28% shooting from beyond the arc.

However the Cavs approach a potential series-clinching game, the Magic know they’ll be able to adjust.

“Just because you’re at home does not mean you can play the exact same way you did then,” Mobley said. “You have to change a little bit of that energy.”

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