The Cleveland Cavaliers-Orlando Magic playoff series could become even chippier

CLEVELAND — Markelle? Markelle Fultz? Is that really you?

You’d have been forgiven if, for a fleeting moment Saturday afternoon, you had mistaken Fultz, No. 20 in an Orlando Magic uniform, for an NFL defensive back.

As Cleveland Cavaliers forward Georges Niang sprinted upcourt with the basketball during Game 1 of the team’s first-round playoff series, Fultz lowered his right shoulder and knocked Niang off stride, denying the Cavaliers a chance to score in transition. Niang and Fultz exchanged words, and their teammates intervened, separating the duo to make sure no scuffle unfolded.

Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” blared over Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse’s speakers while officials reviewed video of the collision.

The sequence resulted in a pair of infractions — a Flagrant-1 foul assessed to Fultz and a technical foul on Niang for walking toward Fultz immediately after the bump — and also may have foreshadowed the physicality both teams will employ Monday in Game 2 and beyond.

“Either he was going to hit me first or I was going to hit him,” Fultz told The Athletic. “So, I just took the initiative to body up, not trying to hurt nobody or anything like that but just deliver a hit, make it be known that we’re not soft.”

Game 1 got chippy at times. About one minute before the Fultz-Niang collision, backup Magic center Moe Wagner shoved Evan Mobley out of bounds as Mobley attempted to collect a defensive rebound. As Wagner walked away, he and Cavs guard Darius Garland bumped each other. Then Wagner clapped in the direction of Orlando’s bench, and Cleveland’s Isaac Okoro shoved Wagner. Okoro received a technical foul.

Shoving matches, skirmishes and extra-hard fouls often occur during the playoffs, and the Magic-Cavs matchup may be no different.

To hear Magic players tell it, in Game 1 they simply doubled-down what they had done throughout the regular season. A team loaded with size at almost every position, Orlando earned the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed with an elite defense and by playing physical basketball.

The Magic think the series could last six or seven games and would like to see if they can wear down the Cavaliers. Perhaps the physicality can nullify the Cavaliers’ skill advantage in the backcourt, where Donovan Mitchell and Garland combined Saturday to score 44 points and dish out 11 assists.

“I thought we did what we needed to do,” Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “I thought we stood our ground first and foremost. But we didn’t allow ourselves to get caught up in the s—. We continued to play good basketball — share the ball, execute the things that we wanted to do. I thought that was their intent: was try to disrupt the game. And our guys didn’t take the bait.”

No one on the Orlando roster tossed more chum into the water on Saturday than Wagner did. All season long, the 6-foot-11 big man (and older brother of Magic forward Franz Wagner) energized his Magic teammates with his scoring and his hustle plays. He took the league’s third-highest number of charges during the regular season, 24 of them, according to the league’s player-tracking system.

The elder Wagner also irritated opponents with his antics. He is the kind of guy whom NBA players love to have as a teammate but also someone who irritates the daylights out of opponents and opposing fans. The Cleveland crowd booed Wagner every time he touched the ball after the incident with Mobley.

Asked if he purposely attempted to ruffle the Cavs’ feathers Saturday, Wagner responded, “No. I just tried to play hard, focus on my teammates, focus on my team, try to help make an impact and not focus on the other team too much.”

The Magic outscored the Cavs by one point during the 13 minutes, 12 seconds that Wagner played Saturday. “What it does for us is it creates an energy for our guys knowing that he knows how to toe that line the right way,” Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said of Wagner. “I think for our guys it provides a level of energy in knowing that we’ve got guys that are playing with a high level of energy and intensity and a sense of urgency.”

Only one other Magic player had a positive plus-minus figure in Game 1: backup wing Joe Ingles, who finished plus-2 in nearly 15 minutes.

As league insiders predicted, Orlando struggled to generate offense against Cleveland. But Magic coaches and players alike thought their process was good in Game 1, if not the results. The NBA tracking data showed the Magic generated 23 3-point attempts that were considered wide-open, with the closest defender at least 6 feet away. Those are lots of wide-open attempts.

The problem? Orlando made only five of those 23 wide-open shots from beyond the arc.

Mosley and Magic players said their physicality and the game’s chippiness had nothing to do with those misses.

If anything, they intend to be just as physical in Game 2.

“We love that stuff,” guard Cole Anthony said. “Especially for us, we’re a hard-nosed team. We want the game to be physical. So, I think that for us that works in our favor.”

But Anthony also praised the Cavaliers for how they responded in Game 1, adding, “They brought the physicality. I think we’re honestly the more physical team, and I think we’ve got to capitalize on that more. But, look, the last game (showed) this is a make-or-miss league.”

The Cavaliers’ game-presentation staff made an accurate decision to play “I Won’t Back Down” after the Fultz-Niang collision. After all, Niang walked toward Fultz after the contact.

“It’s the playoffs, right?” Niang told reporters afterward. “So, you expect everything to just be amplified to a whole new level. You know, whatever they were planning on doing, I was expecting it to be as physical as it was, if not more physical. I mean, that’s just how the playoffs is. It’s a battle.”

The Athletic’s Joe Vardon contributed to this report.

(Top photo of Georges Niang and Markelle Fultz: David Richard / USA Today)

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