So much for the Cleveland Cavaliers proving too much for the young, untested Orlando Magic. After taking the opening two games of the teams’ first-round series in Cleveland by double-digits, the Cavs came crashing back down to earth on Thursday night at Amway Center.

Orlando beat Cleveland 121-83 in Game 3, dominating JB Bickerstaff’s team from the opening tip. The Cavs trailed by 10 points after the first quarter, 16 at halftime and 27 points entering the final stanza, subject to extended garbage time late.

Before Thursday, Cleveland’s worst loss of the season was a 37-point drubbing at hands of the Miami Heat on March 24th, a game both Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen missed. It didn’t matter that the Cavs were full-strength in Game 3. Behind a raucous home crowd that last hosted a playoff game four years ago, Orlando sent Cleveland to its new most lopsided defeat of 2023-24.

Mitchell, at least, wasn’t sweating the final score of Thursday’s game while shouldering blame for the Cavs’ performance. As he sees it, a loss is a loss in the postseason—whether it comes at the buzzer or is effectively decided midway through the third quarter.

“We knew they were going to come out with a punch but we’ve got to find a way to score and it starts with me,” Mitchell said after the game, per the AP. “You don’t get two wins for winning by more than 20, so you’ve got to keep it in that perspective.

“At the end of he day we could have lost by 20 or 40, it doesn’t matter. It’s one win.”

Cavs lament lack of physicality, energy in Game 3

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) drives to the basket against Orlando Magic guard Gary Harris (14) during the first quarter of game three of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Kia Center

Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland faithful don’t need a reminder of what befell the wine-and-gold this time last year. The Cavs’ play over the first two games of this series was so encouraging mostly because it seemed they’d excised the playoff demons that haunted them in 2023 against the New York Knicks.

Game 3 represents a major and troubling step back in that regard, though. The Orlando light really did seem too bright for Cleveland, which utterly failed to match the home team’s energy and physicality—a mirror image of what went down at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

“I feel like it was reverse roles,” Jarrett Allen said. “When we were at home we came out with a lot of energy, a lot of physicality, and they did the same thing to us and we just didn’t respond right away.”

The Cavs grabbed just five offensive rebounds compared to the Magic’s 14, getting outscored 22-9 in second-chance points. Orlando doubled up Cleveland’s 11 fast-break points, many of those transition scores coming off seven steals. Ugly 39.0% shooting makes it hard enough to win on the road in the postseason; getting so sorely out-hustled at the same time virtually assures it’s impossible.

Bickerstaff, fortunately, seems optimistic his team’s reversion to past tendencies won’t prove a harbinger going forward. The next time the Cavs get punched in the mouth early, rest assured they’ll respond better than Thursday night.

“It’s a lesson learned about the importance of the start of the game, and setting the tone,” Bickerstaff said. “They came out and set the tone, we tried to respond and we struggled in doing so.”