Clifford Wants Team To Raise Expectations, Be More Prepared

by John Denton

ORLANDO – In their own very unique ways, Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford and standout forward Aaron Gordon have studied the psychology of basketball winners all the way down to their mannerisms, thought processes and detailed preparation techniques.

Day by day, Clifford and Gordon are trying to impart the wisdom that they have picked up along their distinctly different paths through the basketball world. Clifford, a veteran of 19 NBA seasons, naturally looks at things through the lens of coaching, while Gordon, 23, is constantly pursuing knowledge and tactics that will make him a complete and successful player.

Clifford and Gordon are hopeful that, in time, they will be able to play major roles in helping the Magic change their culture and make the franchise a consistent contender again. While the Magic (4-7) have made some significant strides this season, winning in difficult environs such as Boston and San Antonio, there are still head-scratching nights like Wednesday when the squad stumbles and undermines the progress made.

As the Magic head into Friday’s home showdown against the similarly struggling Washington Wizards (2-8), Clifford has mentioned the need for his team to raise its expectations and demand more of itself. Gordon, meanwhile, wants the squad to alter its thinking before games even tip off so that it can better set itself up for success.

``You have to go into a game knowing that you’ve prepared to win and knowing that you’ve already won the game,’’ said Gordon, who has done extensive work with sports psychologists through the years in an effort to help him maximize his talents. ``You can’t go into the game (thinking), `Are we going to win tonight? Are we going to lose?’ No, the game is already won because of what we’ve done in practice and what we’ve prepared to do. I’ve known that for a long time and it’s something that I’m glad Coach Cliff is also preaching.’’

Clifford, who is in his first season as head coach of the Magic, felt the need to remind his team of the expectations in place for it on Wednesday after Orlando blew leads of 15 and 11 points and lost 103-96 to the Detroit Pistons. Orlando came into the night having won two games in a row for the first time all season, and Clifford impressed upon the squad the need to clean up the inconsistencies in its play so that it could simultaneously continue to improve and keep winning.

The problem on Wednesday, however, was that the Magic were the antithesis of consistency in a game filled with wild runs. Whereas Orlando’s starting five dramatically outplayed Detroit’s star-studded starters, the Magic’s bench had little in the way of production, organization and grit. Four of the reserves (Jonathon Simmons, Terrence Ross, Jarell Martin and Jerian Grant) were at least a negative-20 in scoreboard production while on the floor and the fifth (rookie Mo Bamba) was a negative-16 in plus/minus ratio.

Clifford challenged that group’s approach and readiness to play and is hopeful that it will respond on Friday when the Magic host Dwight Howard, John Wall and the Wizards. History tells Clifford that the Magic will likely play much better following a disappointing defeat.

``So far, we’ve done a really good job of (responding),’’ Clifford said. ``We played really poorly against Charlotte (in the second game of the season) and then we went to Philadelphia and could have won and went to Boston and won. The Clippers game was our worst game and we responded well to that in San Antonio and by coming home (and beating Cleveland).

``The big thing now, too, is we’ve got to win home games,’’ said Clifford, whose Magic are just 2-5 at the Amway Center. ``We’re digging ourselves a hole at home. In this league, it’s hard to win on the road, so you’ve got to do well at home.’’

Clifford’s harsh words for the reserves immediately following Wednesday’s game hit close to home with Ross, Orlando’s most productive reserve all season. After a night when he scored 15 points, grabbed four rebounds and hit two 3-pointers, Ross organized a pre-practice meeting with the Magic’s reserves on Thursday and the group discussed the need to clean up the errors from Wednesday. After Orlando had stormed ahead 31-16, a lineup of mostly reserves allowed Detroit to rip off a 17-0 burst. Later, the Magic’s starters made 12 of their first 16 shots of the second half to open up another 11-point bulge. However, that lead disappeared because of another 22-4 burst by Detroit’s second-line players.

Ross is well aware that with the Magic in a particularly grueling stretch where they are playing eight games in 13 nights that reliable production from the reserves is as important as ever.
``We talked morning. I had all of the guys come and talk this morning in the locker room before we got going,’’ said Ross, who is averaging 12.5 points per game largely by making 33.3 percent of his 3-point shots. ``We’re just trying to see what everybody is feeling and what they feel needs to happen. I feel like we’re on the same page – at least, that bench group. We’ve got a better understanding of how we need to approach the game and stay ready.’’

Added Bamba, who had two points, two rebounds and two blocks against Detroit’s Andre Drummond on Wednesday: ``It takes a lot of self-reflection with the second unit and that was completely unacceptable. We talked with each other and we all know it wasn’t a good effort for our second group. Hopefully we can use that as a stepping stone.’’

Clifford has been through the drill many times before where segments of the team are playing well, and other areas are struggling. Since taking over in Orlando in late May, Clifford has worked to build personal relationships and he’s stressed to all of the players the importance of consistency – both in their play and their preparation. The son of a coach, someone who only ever dreamed of being a coach and a lifer who has dedicated himself to the craft, Clifford has studied ways to motivate players and improve teams. He’s learned from and worked alongside some of the greatest coaches in the game – experiences that have taught him the lesson of perspective in tough times for teams.

Asked about a completely different aspect of coaching earlier in the week, Clifford relayed a story that would relate perfectly to what the Magic are going through currently with half of their team playing well and another half struggling. This gist of Clifford’s anecdote was this: Instead of worrying about everything, pick and choose the big stuff to focus on so the team as a whole can eventually benefit.

``I heard this a long time ago when I was at a (coaching) clinic with Coach (Bobby) Knight and you can talk about all of these little things (in coaching) and it made perfect sense to me,’’ Clifford recalled. ``Somebody asked (Knight) about late-game plays and he said, `Elephants and rabbits.’

``He said, `You need to work and spend the most time on the things that you do most in games,’’ Clifford continued. ``You’ve got to run back on defense 56 times and you’ve got to block out all night, so those are most important. To me, that (advice) has always resonated. You can spend time on everything, but what (Knight) said resonated with me because you want to spend your time on the things that you do the most.’’

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