ORLANDO – If the Orlando Magic were looking for kudos late Tuesday night for playing the powerhouse Philadelphia 76ers close despite the loss of Terrence Ross and the struggles of center Nikola Vucevic, they were sadly mistaken when head coach Steve Clifford addressed the team.
Clifford, an old-school coaching lifer, is usually about as subtle as punch in the stomach and he isn’t one to spare feelings when it comes to the bottom-line business of basketball. In Clifford’s eyes, there is the black-and-white assessment of winning and losing and he isn’t one to tolerate the excuses that fall into the gray areas.
On Tuesday in Philadelphia, after the Magic poured all kinds of effort and emotion into the game, Clifford could have pointed to the defensive improvement in the second half, the fourth-quarter rally from 12 down to within one point and the many open looks created that gave them a chance to either take the lead or knot the score. Instead, he spoke of the team’s many misses in the most critical part of the game and the defensive gaffe that left Mike Scott open for a 3-pointer that sealed Orlando’s fate in a 114-106 loss to the Sixers.
At this point in the season, with just 16 games remaining, the Magic (30-36) no longer have much margin for error if they hope to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Coincidentally, Clifford was a part of that 2012 Orlando team that got into the postseason as an assistant coach, and his 19-year stint in the NBA has been filled several deep runs in the playoffs.
So, late Tuesday, he spoke from experience when he told his Magic that certain things must improve and change if the they are to accomplish the goal of reaching the postseason.
``That’s the nature of it right now – you’ve either got to be able to handle these (disappointments) and be able to come back or we don’t deserve to be a playoff team,’’ Clifford said candidly. ``This is what it’s all about and this is where we find out who can step up and do what they have to do. We can’t do the `we played better in the second half,’ which I just told them. These are the games we need to win.’’
When the Magic didn’t win on Tuesday, they dropped from eighth in the Eastern Conference standings to 10th behind Charlotte (29-34) and Miami (29-34). The Orlando team that won five straight games prior to the break for the NBA All-Star Game is but a memory now with it going 3-4 since and dropping infinitely winnable games against Chicago, New York and Cleveland. Even Tuesday’s game against Philadelphia was there for the taking had the Magic not missed four straight shots late in the night that could have tied the score or given them the lead.
Once an 80 percent favorite to reach the postseason by various computer models, Orlando’s playoffs-or-bust mission has hit a critical juncture. Starting with Friday’s home game against the faltering Dallas Mavericks (27-36), the Magic will play seven straight games against teams with losing records and no hope of reaching the postseason. Anything short of perfection or something near that could dash Orlando’s playoff chances before the calendar even flips to April.
``We obviously know (the importance of the upcoming stretch), (Clifford) has told us and we’re aware of it, and now we just have to do what it takes to win these games,’’ said Vucevic, who uncharacteristically struggled through a poor performance in Philadelphia. ``We had a chance to get a win (on Tuesday) and that’s disappointing, but (the Sixers) are a good team and they took care of their business at home. Now, we’ve got to go back home, use these next two days rest a little bit and then get back to work defending our home court against Dallas.’’
In terms of the stretch run of the regular season, Orlando would seem to be in the most advantageous spot what with it having just five games remaining against teams with winning records (one at home and four on the road) and 11 left against teams with losing marks (seven at home and four on the road). Meanwhile, Charlotte has 10 games left against teams with winning records (four at home and six on the road) and Miami has 11 such games remaining (five at home and six on the road). But after suffering a host of bad losses in the past two weeks and falling two games back in the loss column, the Magic know that no opponent can be overlooked with so much on the line.
``It’s just about being solid and continuing to do (late in games) what you did throughout the whole game,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who played well offensively on Tuesday with 24 points, nine rebounds and three assists, but had the one of the key defensive breakdowns late in the night. ``Regardless of the points, the score or the time in the game, it’s just about being a solid team. That last Mike Scott three (that sealed the victory for Philadelphia) was a big mistake on my part and we can’t have that.’’
When Clifford went back and watched the footage of Sunday’s 107-93 loss in Cleveland – one where the Magic struggled defensively all night and gave up 40 points in the fourth quarter – he saw a tired and frazzled team. Clifford is hopeful that as the Magic’s schedule becomes more forgiving over the coming days and weeks, the team will be able to play with more consistency. And make no mistake about it, Clifford said, the Magic will need to get great efforts from several players in each of the remaining games to have a shot at winning their way into the playoffs.
``For our team, we’re going to have to play well to win. We’re not going to just show up and beat anybody,’’ Clifford said. ``It’s not easy right now. (Sunday) night was six in 10 nights, and to be honest, while watching the game, we’re exhausted. That’s just the reality of it.
``When I was here before (as an assistant coach from 2007-12), (former Magic coach) Stan (Van Gundy) and I had a great talk a couple of weeks ago about this and he said, `You’ve got to understand, before, we could have a week where we didn’t play that well and we’d still be 2-1 or 3-1.’ That’s not this (current Magic) team. If we don’t play well, we’re not going to win, and that’s the reality of all this. … We need to be great defensively, purposeful offensively and then we could beat any team. That’s just where we’re at. We’re not going to just pop in here and beat teams by 25 points because that’s not our team.’’
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