ORLANDO – Like a wise, old uncle who has learned lots from life and has been through an array of different experiences, Steve Clifford has a relatable story for just about any NBA scenario that surfaces.
Clifford’s depth of experience culled from 19 years in the NBA has come in particularly handy of late with his Orlando Magic getting off to a disappointing 2-6 start.
When giving tips to Magic players or explaining game plans, Clifford will often sprinkle in anecdotes about working with basketball luminaries such as Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Yao Ming, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu – the latter of that group who spoke to the squad after practice on Saturday. Clifford will also talk to them about the pressures of being in the NBA Finals and the pressures of simply trying to reach the playoffs.
Also, Clifford often mentions his first season as head coach of the Charlotte Hornets in 2013-14 – something he brought up again on Saturday as the Magic attempted to rebound quickly from Friday’s humbling 120-95 home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
In 2013-14, Clifford’s Hornets – a team that had won just 28 games combined over the previous two seasons – endured several rough patches early in the season and started 15-23. Charlotte would dip eight games below .500 three more times before the principles being taught by the veteran coach started to sink in and the team took off. Once 19-27 on Jan. 25 of that season, the Hornets went 24-12 the rest of the way for a 43-39 record that got the franchise into the NBA playoffs for the first time in four years.
``He was telling us that in his first year in Charlotte they were under (eight) games from .500, but they stuck together, kept fighting, made the playoffs and was a top-10 defensive team,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier said of Clifford’s message to the team on Saturday. ``When a guy like that has seen it all, it gives you confidence and belief. Plus, it’s always fun to hear stories about great players.’’
The Magic will encounter several good players on Sunday when they face the re-tooled Spurs (5-2) in San Antonio. Initially stung by his trade from Toronto to San Antonio, all-star guard DeMar DeRozan has recovered quite nicely and is leading the Spurs in scoring (27.9 ppg.) and assists (7.3 apg.) while shooting 52.1 percent from the floor.
Orlando is hopeful that guard Jonathon Simmons (bruised right wrist) can return to action after practicing on Saturday. Meanwhile, forward Jonathan Isaac (sprained right ankle) didn’t go through the Saturday session and is listed as questionable to play.
Sunday’s game will present yet another formidable foe to the Magic, owners of the NBA’s third-most difficult schedule according to ESPN.com. San Antonio will be the sixth opponent out of nine so far for the Magic that reached the playoffs last spring. Only Boston and Washington have played tougher schedules thus far, according to ESPN.com.
Clifford said he still has a strong belief that the Magic have the talent, experience and hunger to be the kind of team that steadily improves as the season chugs along and surprises some at the end. That’s one reason he relayed the story of that 2013-14 Charlotte team to a Magic squad in the throes of a dispiriting four-game losing streak.
``We just kept getting better and we finished the year really strong,’’ Clifford said of his first team in Charlotte. ``We have a team here (in Orlando) that can get better, but we have to hang in there.
``It’s not about all of these clichés. To win in this league, you have to play well,’’ Clifford added. ``You have to be good on offense and good on defense. … Hopefully we’ll play better (Sunday) night.’’
Among the many things that Magic players like about Clifford, his vast experience in coaching is one trait that commands particular respect. When talking to young players about work ethic, he can share stories of Bryant showing up early and staying late for shooting sessions. When discussing post defense with centers, he can explain how Dwight Howard or Yao did it in their glory days. The same goes for Clifford detailing how he witnessed Turkoglu run pick-and-roll plays almost to perfection in 2009 as the Magic reached the NBA Finals.
And when his teams struggle, Clifford can dip into his memory bank for lessons learned along the way while working with Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike D’Antoni, Tom Thibodeau, Brendan Malone and others.
Fournier, for one, marvels at Clifford’s wealth of basketball knowledge. In his seven NBA seasons in Denver and Orlando, Fournier has played for seven head coaches and thus far he’s been impressed with how the veteran mentor has handled various situations.
``Cliff has a lot of experience, he’s worked for a lot of teams and with a lot of players, so he knows his stuff and he believes in his stuff. He’s telling us how things will work (over time) and I agree with him,’’ said Fournier, who showed signs of coming out of his mini-slump on Friday night with 19 points on seven-of-12 shooting. ``When a coach tells you that he’s worked with great players, with teams that were successful, with teams that weren’t successful but had good chemistry and teams that were great but hated each other – it gives you perspective. He tells you that he’s seen it all and so many different scenarios and he knows how seasons can go different ways.’’
Clifford’s experience could be quite useful with Orlando struggling just as it continues one of the most taxing stretches of the season. Friday’s game started a stretch where the Magic will play eight times in 13 nights. Clifford responded accordingly, putting his team through a light workout on Saturday and eliminating the squad’s shoot-around session on Sunday morning. Now, he’s turning to his experiences in hopes of inspiring this Magic team.
``Like I told the guys (on Saturday), regardless of where you’ve been (in a season), there are always ways to get better and play better,’’ Clifford said. ``It starts with the group understanding that you’ve got to play better. When you have that attitude, that’s how you make progress and get better at both ends of the court. That’s the way we have to continue to look at this.’’
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.