Donovan Mitchell leads Cavaliers past Magic and into second round of NBA playoffs

Former Utah Jazz star scores 39 points in Game 7.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shoots between Orlando Magic guard Cole Anthony (50) and center Moritz Wagner (21) 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)

Cleveland • Whether or not Donovan Mitchell’s long-term future with the Cavaliers is in doubt, the city belongs to him right now.

Mitchell, successor to LeBron James in Cleveland in so many ways, led the franchise to its first playoff series victory without The King since 1993 in a 106-94 win over the Orlando Magic in Game 7 of their first-round series.

Mitchell, following his 50 points in a Game 6 loss, would not be denied Sunday with 24 of his 39 points in the second half, serenaded by deafening “MVP” chants from a raucous, frothing crowd at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

“I told you at the beginning of the series, like, this is why I’m here. It’s my job. It’s why there’s the expectation on myself,” said Mitchell, who has a four-year, $200 million contract extension offer coming his way this summer.

“It’s an honor, obviously, to be part of history in that regard,” Mitchell added, when asked about leading the Cavs to their first series win without LeBron in 31 years. “But the biggest thing is, and I told everybody in the locker room… it doesn’t really mean much. We didn’t make the (team) we made just to come in and win the first round.”

The Cavs will face the top-seeded Boston Celtics in an Eastern Conference semifinal. Game 1 is at Boston’s TD Garden at 5 p.m. MDT on Tuesday.

Cleveland's Donovan Mitchell, left, and Orlando's Joe Ingles — former teammates with the Utah Jazz — talk after the Cavaliers defeated the Magic in Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Paolo Banchero finished a tremendous first playoff series for the Magic with 38 points and 16 rebounds. The 21-year-old became the youngest player to score 30-plus points in three games in the same playoff series.

Cleveland, winners of four consecutive Game 7s (dating to Game 7 of the 2016 Finals), trailed by as many as 18 in the first half and by 10 at halftime. The Cavs’ comeback was the largest in a Game 7 since at least 1998, according to Elias Sports.

“They went on a heck of a run,” Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said. “I think they did a great job of forcing tough shots. Those tough shots and long shots led to runouts. We got stagnant a little bit. We found something that worked, and we missed a couple of shots and they were able to get out and run. Donovan got downhill quite a bit.”

Cleveland tanked the fourth quarter of its last regular-season game to make sure it finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and drew Orlando in the first round. On Sunday, the Cavs were 24 game minutes from rueing that decision.

Mitchell, who was just 3-of-13 in the first half, stormed from the locker room to pour in 17 points in the third. His push through Jalen Suggs’ foul in the lane for a short jumper with 4:09 left in the third quarter tied the score at 64, and subjectively speaking, Cleveland’s arena may not have been that loud after Mitchell’s play since all those Finals runs with James.

“Gotta give a shoutout to those Cleveland fans, that was crazy,” Mitchell said. “I (found) myself standing in the middle of the arena just kind of enjoying the moment.”

Orlando forward Jonathan Isaac said: “He was tough tonight. He played really well. He’s had a great series. So it’s tough when it’s not even necessarily about him but when other guys are able to help him.”

True. Mitchell was not alone in the rally. Max Strus, scoreless in the first half, scored 11 of his 13 points in the third quarter — including a 3-pointer with 2:23 left in the third for a 71-68 lead Cleveland never relinquished. Strus was signed to a four-year contract from the Miami Heat last summer to beef up the team’s outside shooting after Cleveland’s first-round playoff loss to the New York Knicks. He picked the right time to make good on the promise the Cavs saw in him with those three 3s in the pivotal third.

Cleveland received 15 points from Caris LeVert, who struggled so mightily in Game 6 that he logged just seven minutes. Evan Mobley finished with 11 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks as Cleveland’s only big man. Darius Garland struggled to shoot (3-of-13 overall), but his 3-pointer with 5:53 left in the fourth made it 88-77. Mitchell wrapped him in an embrace after the shot, which sent the game into a timeout. Garland finished with 12 points.

Sam Merrill, seldom used in this series, may have saved Game 7 for the Cavs, even though all but a few seconds of his 11 minutes came in the first half. With Cleveland way behind, he scored 8 in the second quarter, including two huge 3s that helped the Cavs cut their deficit to 10.

“We had some guys come in and make momentum-shifting plays,” Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “I thought Sam came in and not only the threes but the charge he took. Caris came in (and) gave us a spark. We kept doing it together, and we never doubted each other. I think there were moments that we saw when we’re on the road where we allowed things to snowball. And tonight we weren’t about that.”

The Magic, who by all accounts are ahead of schedule with their program building, remain winless in any playoff series since 2010.

While Banchero dominated the series, averaging 27 points and 8.6 rebounds, no other Magic player was as consistent as he was.

Wendell Carter Jr., who began the series on the bench, added 13 points and Suggs finished with 10 in Game 7. Orlando shot 29-of-86 from the field and will lament letting a golden opportunity to reach the second round slip away.

No road team won a road game in this series. The Cavs led by nine at halftime of Game 4, and by five entering the fourth quarter of Game 6, but crumbled twice. Orlando’s lead in the second quarter, which reached 18 points, seemed insurmountable, but the Magic couldn’t make a shot after that. Franz Wagner and Suggs, Orlando’s top players next to Banchero, shot a combined 3-of-28 in Game 7.

Cavs center Jarrett Allen (rib contusion) did not play in the final three games of this series. He was averaging 17 points and nearly 14 rebounds before an elbow from Mo Wagner in Game 4 “pierced” a rib on his right side, team sources said, leaving his status for Game 1 Tuesday in question.

For Cleveland, “questionable” is much better than out — end of season. For a while Sunday, it was headed that way.