Are NBA playoff lights too bright for Cavaliers? ‘It was good for them to get their a– whooped’

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Brutal and honest in his self-assessment, Jarrett Allen leveled himself and his teammates after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ last brief playoff run by suggesting they all had wilted under the pressure.

“Even for me, the lights were brighter than expected,” Allen infamously said after the Cavs were summarily dismissed by the New York Knicks in five games of a first-round series.

Nearly a year later, after a regular season in which the Cavs were measured largely in comparison to that singular statement, they are again preparing for a playoff series as the No. 4 seed. Their opponent is again a tough, big, defensive-minded, physical team, probably unafraid of the moment because they know they were maybe not supposed to be here so fast.

This time it’s the Orlando Magic instead of the Knicks. Games 3 and 4 won’t be at the Mecca of basketball, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, but near a kingdom ruled by a mouse. The opponent almost doesn’t matter though, if the playoff pressure is too great.

It’s a question the Cavaliers, who won three fewer games in this regular season than the last, would never be able to answer until this moment arrived, the start of a new playoffs with Game 1 at 1 p.m. Eastern on Saturday.

Are the lights still too bright for them?

“You know, after the eclipse, we kept staring into the sun, so nothing can be as bright,” Allen said Thursday. He was asked if he regretted the self-indictment he’d offered after losing to the Knicks and said: “I’ve said a lot worse stuff in my life, so that doesn’t mean much to me.”

Darius Garland, who, like many of his teammates last season, got his first taste of the playoffs (Allen had previously experienced the postseason with the Brooklyn Nets), said Allen’s assessment wasn’t even true.

“I don’t think it was too bright at all; we just lost the series,” Garland said Thursday. “It wasn’t like they (the Knicks) killed us every game and we lost by 30.”

The Cavs didn’t lose any playoff games by 30 last April, but they dropped Game 3 by 20 and could only manage a single win. The Knicks bullied them in the post, which is pertinent to Cleveland’s current situation because that’s Orlando’s game — Paolo Banchero and his Magic teammates will try to do the same thing.

“I think the guys that were on the (Cleveland) team last year, it was good for them to get their a– whooped by a very tough New York team because it let them know how tough the playoffs are,” said Tristan Thompson, one of the Cavaliers’ elder statesmen, who returned to the team this season after several years with other franchises.

The Cavs who take the floor Saturday will have more playoff experience, collectively, than either the Cavs who were out there for Game 1 against the Knicks in 2023 or the Magic who will oppose them in this series. Donovan Mitchell, the biggest star on either side, is a playoff veteran. The Cavs who experienced the playoffs for the first time last season, such as Garland, Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro, all now understand the physical and mental demands of the postseason. The organization added Max Strus, fresh off an NBA Finals with the Miami Heat, Georges Niang, a playoff vet, Thompson (a 2016 champ with the Cavs) and Marcus Morris, another seasoned playoff veteran. Orlando, by contrast, has only five players with postseason experience of any kind.

There are any number of issues the Cavs must solve, from Mitchell’s ailing left knee (he played just 10 games after the All-Star break but says he’s fully healthy now) to a leaky defense (Orlando’s offense is rated 22nd in the NBA, which should help) to trying to find a way back to the 3-point shooting, free-flowing offense from December and January when Cleveland was the league’s best team.

But the magnitude of the moment should not be among those issues.

“For the veterans … we’ve been in playoff series, been in a handful up or down,” Thompson said. “We know what it takes, so I think it’s a good combination. We have guys who’ve had success, but also guys who have had failure and are hungry for (another opportunity).”

The Cavs still have not won a playoff series without LeBron James on the team since 1993. They hadn’t won a playoff game without him since 1998; at least that one was fixed last year in Game 2 against the Knicks.

There is enormous emphasis on winning a series inside the organization, which requires a little explanation. Of course every team in the playoffs is trying to beat the other team; advancing is the only thing that matters. But there is perhaps a singular focus on it in Cleveland, because it would signal improvement from a year ago.

Mitchell has never said this publicly, but outside analysts opine that winning a series is paramount for the contract decision he has looming this summer. Team president Koby Altman has never said this publicly, but it is believed coach J.B. Bickerstaff needs to win. Perhaps that pressure is felt above him too. The organization made numerous decisions last Sunday — on the final day of the regular season — to lose to a tanking Charlotte Hornets team, thus guaranteeing a first-round series against Orlando.



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It was as though the Cavs chose the Magic as a first-round opponent. If so, the lights are back on.

“We’re not worried about the outside noise, Garland said. “I don’t think we would duck smoke. Not this group, at least. We’ll take anybody that comes with it.”

(Photo of Jarrett Allen and Moritz Wagner: David Liam Kyle / NBAE via Getty Images)

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