Cavaliers pull together to overcome Orlando, but challenge stiffens with top-seeded Celtics up next

It took Donovan Mitchell’s magnificence, a historic comeback and plenty of grit for the Cavaliers to escape the first round
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland, right, hugs teammate Donovan Mitchell (45) after hitting a 3-point basket in the second half of Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic, Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

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Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland, right, hugs teammate Donovan Mitchell (45) after hitting a 3-point basket in the second half of Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic, Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

CLEVELAND (AP) — It took Donovan Mitchell's magnificence, a historic comeback and plenty of grit for the Cavaliers to escape the first round.

It will take even more to go any further.

Cleveland avoided a second straight first-round playoff knockout — and a potential doomsday scenario for the organization — by overcoming an 18-point deficit Sunday to beat the Orlando Magic 106-94 in Game 7.

The Cavs, who turned some early boos into deafening roars at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, had little time to celebrate their first series win since 1993 without a certain NBA career scoring leader from nearby Akron on their roster.

The page had to be turned quickly. No. 1 seed Boston's next.

But before they began focusing on the Celtics ahead of Game 1 on Tuesday night at TD Center, the Cavs savored a victory that was in many ways a microcosm of a season filled with injuries, highs, lows and doubt.

“We showed a lot of fight,” said Caris LeVert, who came off the bench and scored 15 points. “We showed what we’ve been showing all year long. We just kept fighting. We’ve been there several times this year, not just games, just as a unit. We’ve been banged up. We've been injured. But we got a next-man-up mentality and we just never quit.”

With center Jarrett Allen missing his third straight game because of a badly bruised rib, Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff had to juggle his lineup and rotation, something he was forced to do on an almost daily basis this season.

But then just minutes in, the Cavs appeared to be in major trouble, and a year dedicated to erasing the painful memory of last year's five-game flameout against the New York Knicks would be for nothing.

The Cavs were being outplayed by the young and playoff-untested Magic, who led by 21-year-old sensation Paolo Banchero, pushed their lead to 47-29 midway through the second quarter.

At that point, everything seemed to be on the line for Cleveland, starting with Bickerstaff's job security.

But the Cavs managed to pull within 10 at halftime and, in the third quarter Mitchell, who scored 50 in a Game 6 loss, took over the way LeBron James used to on a regular basis while leading Cleveland to four straight Finals and its only NBA title.

Mitchell outscored the Magic by himself 17-15 in the third, when he also took on the role of team psychologist and threw his arm around guard Darius Garland during a timeout to deliver a pep talk.

After Max Strus, who was signed by Cleveland in the offseason to address a need for outside shooting, made back-to-back 3-pointers, the Cavs took a 76-68 lead and some confidence into the fourth.

Then, with the Cavs leading by eight, Garland and Mitchell shared a moment that may best exemplify Cleveland's season.

Garland missed a 3-pointer from the right wing, but the long rebound was gathered by Cavs forward Isaac Okoro, who passed it to Mitchell.

Although he had a lane as he drove toward the basket, Mitchell pulled up and fired the ball to Garland, who knocked down a 3-pointer from the same spot to put Cleveland up 11 and allow its fans to exhale.

Mitchell and Garland then shared a big hug, pulling each other tight much the way these Cavs have had to bind.

Together.

“We have that relationship,” Mitchell said. "So to see him respond like that, I knew he’s back. Sometimes you just need that. That’s huge. That's who he needs to be. I always tell him keep shooting the ball, keep being aggressive. I don’t care if you turn the ball over, I don’t care if the crowd boos, I don’t care.

“We don’t care. Just continue to be you.”

The Cavs, who suffered the worst playoff loss in club history in Game 3, have adopted a similar mantra as a team.

They're aware of their flaws and have no illusions about their status. They know they're sizable underdogs against the Celtics, who separated from the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders months ago.

But as he considered what lies ahead following the largest Game 7 comeback since the NBA began taking more detailed records in the 1990s, Mitchell smirked when asked what should be expected of the Cavs next.

“We know who we are,” he said. "A team that's a contender. We did what we’re supposed to do. In the grand scheme of it all, we just took seven games. So for us coming into Boston, I’m pretty sure everybody thinks they’re going to come in and kick our ass.

“We just need to be who we are.”

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Cleveland Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert (3) takes the ball up the court in the first half of Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic, Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

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Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland celebrates in the second half of Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic, Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

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Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) celebrates a three-point basket with teammate Donovan Mitchell, left, in the second half of Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic, Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

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Cleveland Cavaliers' Darius Garland, left, and Donovan Mitchell celebrate after defeating the Orlando Magic in Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

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Cleveland Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert (3) goes to the basket in front of Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz (20) in the first half of Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

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Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) shoots over Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero in the second half of Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

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