Getting Magic Back in Playoff Hunt Excited Clifford When He First Took Coaching Job

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

NEW YORK – A part of some of the best Magic teams in the 30-year history when he worked previously for the organization from 2007-12, Steve Clifford admitted on Tuesday that one of his motivations in returning was helping Orlando become a perennial playoff team again.

Clifford has certainly gotten the Magic in the playoff mix this season, entering Tuesday just a half-game back of the Charlotte Hornets for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference. Four games back as recently as three weeks ago, Orlando got to that point by winning six of seven games and eight of 10 prior to facing the New York Knicks on Tuesday.

Those are downright heady numbers compared to where the Magic were in recent years at the All-Star break. They were 15-37 in 2013, 16-38 in 2014, 17-39 in 2015, 23-29 in 2016, 21-37 in 2017 and 18-39 in 2018 – records that usually meant they were already close to being eliminated from playoff contention.

Now, with Clifford at the helm, the Magic are back in contention again. That was the case from 2007-12, when Clifford served as an assistant under head coach Stan Van Gundy. Not only did those teams make the playoffs five straight times, they won the franchise’s first playoff series in 12 years in 2008, reached the 2009 NBA Finals and got to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.

Clifford is hopeful that the Magic can make the playoffs this season and steadily progress toward things such as conference titles and NBA championships in coming years.

``Listen, (getting the Magic back in the playoff hunt) was one of the reasons that I was excited for this opportunity,’’ said Clifford, who was hired by President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond in late May last year. ``I know what a great fan base we have (in Orlando) because I experienced it when I was here before. No matter what, one of your responsibilities as a coach or being part of a coaching staff is to your fan base. I have an appreciation for the people in Orlando.

``When people say, `Ahhhh, it’s step by step,’ there’s also no rule that says just because it’s Year 1 that it doesn’t mean you can’t do something exceptional either,’’ Clifford stressed. ``It has been done before.’’

MSG MOMENT: Because of a series of ankle injuries that haunted him early in his career, Magic forward Jonathan Isaac never got to play in New York’s Madison Square Garden as a rookie and he also missed Orlando’s 115-89 rout of the Knicks at MSG on Nov. 11 because of another minor ankle sprain.

The 21-year-old Isaac grew up in the Bronx section of New York prior to moving to Florida when he was 10 years old. While he said it was never particularly a dream of his to play in Madison Square Garden as much as it was to simply play in the NBA, Isaac said it was painful to have to sit and watch games from the bench during his first three trips to the famed arena.

``When I was in New York I really didn’t play basketball that much, but I know the history (of Madison Square Garden) and how huge it is to play there,’’ said Isaac, whose only basketball memories in New York were playing casually with his brothers at Hunt’s Point Rec Center. ``Especially being in New York, and my pops wanted to come and see me play, and to not be able to play that’s what really bummed me out. But he’ll be there tonight and I’m really looking forward to it.’’

GETTING DEFENSIVE: One of the primary reasons why the Magic have played their best basketball of late has been the improvement of their defense.

Since Jan. 1, the Magic rank second in the NBA in defensive efficiency (106.1 points per 100 possessions). Also, in that time, they are fourth in defensive rebounding percentage and they have climbed to 17thin offensive efficiency (110 points per 100 possessions).

``Our defensive rebounding has been better, we’re not fouling as much and our transition defense – which most of the year has been good – it’s been a combination of those things,’’ Clifford said. ``If you look at the makeup of our team and we’re going to finish strong, we have to do it defensively. We’re starting to play better defensively. We’re not going to be a top-five offensive team – we don’t have that kind of roster – but we can be a top-five defensive team. If we want to win, that’s how we have to do it.’’

Clifford said prior to the season that if the Magic had any hopes of reaching the playoffs that they would need to be a top-10 defense and a top-20 offense. That prediction has held true to this point as the Magic’s best stretch of the season has coincided with their defensive dominance.

``If you want to go back 22 or 23 years, most teams that play in the Finals, they’re top 10 in both (offensive and defensive efficiency),’’ Clifford said. ``But, for the most part, it’s hard to be a poor defensive team and make the playoffs. There are a lot of teams that aren’t good on offense that make the playoffs. But rarely do the poor defensive teams make the playoffs unless they are just phenomenal on offense.’’

UP NEXT: Following an off day on Wednesday, the Magic will attempt to accomplish the Herculean task of defeating the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night at the Amway Center.

The Magic have dropped 11 straight games to the Warriors, including a 116-110 heartbreaker back on Nov. 26 in Oakland. In that game, the Magic led by as much as 19 points midway through the third period before losing Aaron Gordon to a back injury and seeing Kevin Durant heat up for 49 points to rally the Warriors.

Golden State won the first game of its four-game road trip to the East Coast in Charlotte on Monday. The Warriors play in Miami on Wednesday and in Orlando on Thursday and head coach Steve Kerr has said that he will most likely rest some of the team’s superstar players in each of the two games in Florida.

Golden State plays in Philadelphia on Saturday night in a nationally televised game.

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