ORLANDO – A coaching lifer who actually loves the daily grind of the NBA’s marathon-like season, Steve Clifford’s focus was so much into the improvement of his Orlando Magic team that he didn’t shift his attention to the next opponent until Thursday morning.
The fact that the foe dead ahead is the Charlotte Hornets – Clifford’s employer the previous five years – it might come as a surprise to some, but the coach was sticking to his mantra of daily improvement and correcting errors late Wednesday night and into Thursday morning.
Undoubtedly, seeing some of the Hornets’ players that he worked with for years will stir emotions on Friday night, Clifford said. But those feelings will do little to detract the coach from the task of prepping his team for a Charlotte squad that has given Orlando fits for years.
``Honestly, and I mean this, when you start playing (the games), it’s late nights and early mornings to get ready (for Thursday’s practice),’’ Clifford said following the Magic’s light workout. ``We’ve got Charlotte and they’ll be a tough team to play against, and so will Philly and Boston (on Saturday and Monday). So, for the whole (coaching) staff, it’s (scouting) a Charlotte tape and a Philly tape and the games kind of run into one another.’’
The prep work for Orlando (1-0) for Friday’s home game against Charlotte (0-1) had to be made easier by the fact that the Magic played well in Wednesday’s season-opening, 104-101 defeat of the Miami Heat. Aaron Gordon (26 points and a career-tying best 16 rebounds), rookie Mohamed Bamba (13 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots) and Terrence Ross (four points, four rebounds, four assists and a career-best four blocks) starred throughout and Orlando was able to hold on in a tense final few minutes to give Clifford his first victory as the Magic’s head coach.
Not long after Orlando’s victory, cameras inside the Magic’s locker room captured Clifford instructing his team about how it responded going forward would be a tell-tale sign for the squad. Clifford wants his players using games as a roadmap to show them where improvements are needed so that the squad can become more efficient and cohesive as the season churns along.
``Just stopping runs, and we saw it early,’’ Bamba said, referring to Thursday’s film review and one of Clifford’s points of interest. ``And in the fourth quarter (the Heat) went on some absurd run. It eventually came to a stop, and the (defensive) stops at the end led to the win. But preventing those runs in the first place would have been helpful.’’
Preventing runs will be something that could prove difficult on Friday against Charlotte (0-1), which has dominated the Magic for years. The Hornets, who are now being coached by former Orlando interim coach James Borrego, have beaten the Magic in the last 11 consecutive games. All those losses, of course, came with Clifford coaching the Hornets – save for the one that he missed last season because of a health issue. The last Magic win against Charlotte and all-star guard Kemba Walker came on Dec. 16, 2015 – a 113-98 victory at the Amway Center.
``They’ve kicked our ass the last several years,’’ said guard Evan Fournier, who drilled two free throws with 1.6 seconds remaining on Wednesday to give the Magic some breathing room. ``The main guy is Kemba and he got 41 (on Wednesday) night (against Milwaukee) and it’s going to be all about him, controlling him in the pick-and-roll, making sure we get back on defense and loading up to him in transition.’’
Charlotte struggled in transition and defensively in much of Wednesday’s 113-112 loss to Milwaukee. The Hornets trailed by as much as 20 points before going to an ultra-small lineup in the fourth quarter that allowed them to surprisingly zip into the lead. Ultimately, Giannis Antetokounmpo (25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists) made two free throws with 23.7 seconds remaining to lift Milwaukee and disappoint Charlotte.
Clifford was plenty disappointed with how his final team in Charlotte played last season. Despite a resurgent year from center Dwight Howard and an all-star campaign by Walker, the Hornets limped to a 36-46 record – far below the expectations that the coach had for the squad. That disappointment led to Clifford – who guided the franchise to playoff appearances in 2014 and ’16 – to being fired from his first head coaching gig in the NBA.
``I loved my time there (in Charlotte), I have good relationships with the players and the people in the city were great to me,’’ said Clifford, who was 196-214 and 3-8 in the playoffs in five seasons in Charlotte. ``The first four years, frankly, I’m real proud of. Last year, for a number of reasons we should have played better. But for those first four seasons, I was proud of what we stood for.’’
Clifford said that he got a big assist in his first season in Charlotte when he got a total buy-in from Walker. With the star guard believing in what his new coach was teaching, Clifford was able to convert the Hornets from a bottom-five defensive team to a top-five unit that first season. As a result, Charlotte won 43 games in 2013-14 – 15 more than the previous two seasons combined.
``Kemba is not only a terrific player who takes a lot of pride in his game, but he cares that things are good in the organization, good with his teammates and there’s a purpose to how things are done. He’s got the whole package,’’ Clifford raved. ``I’ve coached some of those (Charlotte) guys five years and some of them four years, so you go through a lot together and there are some terrific players and great people on that team.’’
Clifford is trying to pull off a similar turnaround in Orlando where the Magic haven’t been to the playoffs since 2012. A good first step was showing toughness throughout Wednesday’s game against Miami and winning when things looked dire after the Heat cut a 12-point deficit to one. Rather than predicting win totals or making `playoffs-or-bust’ type of proclamations, Clifford has simply preached to his team about a mission of steady improvement.
``What I’m trying to sell is, `this is what wins in the NBA – get better,’’’ he said bluntly. ``Play the game, look at what was good and what was bad, get better and commit to it so that you are playing better, better and better. Then, you can become a team that’s not going to beat themselves. If we get to that point, then the wins will take care of themselves.’’
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