To Steve Clifford, Nikola Vucevic Is "Definitely" an All-Star

Dan Savage
Director of Digital News

ORLANDO – Big wins in big matchups generate national attention.

So to no one’s surprise, after a pair of pivotal home victories over the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets on back-to-back nights, members of the Magic were requested for appearances on several nationally syndicated shows.

One of those guests was Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford, who joined Frank Isola and Brian Scalabrine on SiriusXM’s The Starting Lineup to talk about Nikola Vucevic’s All-Star caliber season and Orlando’s impressive performances over the weekend.

Take a look at some of the highlights below:

TSL: Do you look at (Nikola Vucevic) as being an All-Star player, Steve?

Clifford: Definitely. He’s also a much, much, much better defender than I had realized. He’s very smart, his pick-and-roll defense has been good, he’s a very good defensive rebounder – he always has been – and he’s a terrific competitor. If you want to look at value to a team, again, I think people talk a lot about the guys that are range shooters and how they create space for their teammates, so not only is he putting up big numbers scoring and rebounding, but he’s a big part of why our defense is getting better. When he’s on the floor, he puts enormous pressure on the defense because he’s a center, who can shoot threes, who has a very good post-up game. I think the biggest difference is he’s a range-shooting big, who can both shoot and pass. The passing part of it changes everything. We cut, a lot of our offense is getting him the ball in the middle of the floor outside the three where the lane is wide open and their centers have to get to him. There’s so many things that his skill level and decision making allow us to do to that help his teammates play better.

TSL: Your team seems to play better when you’re running the ball through Vucevic. Is that sort of your game plan moving forward?

Clifford: It has to be. And that’s the one thing, to be honest, that was the one adjustment that we made and are going to continue to make from the West Coast trip. We had double-digit leads in the first half in four of those games. And Brian, in the early part of your career, most teams posted the ball, a lot in the fourth quarter. One of the things that happens is when you’re just playing ball, which is so much more of what our league is, and you take a lot of threes, which we do, and everybody is everywhere on the floor, the thing that happens is you can get up 12 and you can also let people back in the game. One of the things that we did – we talked about it as a team and they understand, I think they all agree – he is our best offensive player. Aaron Gordon also, and we’re going to post those guys more. Somebody goes 6-2, we need to be able to post more, score cutting baskets off those two guys, and play one-on-one in the post. And our defense will be set, which is, as I watched it, it’s not just taking quick threes as much as it’s, your defense isn’t set you’ve got perimeter guys down on the baseline and even though as transition defense has been good, it’s just a recipe to me for the other team to be able to go 12-2.

TSL: What did you learn about your team over the weekend, because those are impressive performances?

Clifford: The guys did a good job. Our problem has been, frankly, we’ve made very good progress defensively. The first 20 games, we were 16th or 17th in defense. The next 20, where we didn’t play as well, I think we were eighth. Our defensive rebounding has gotten better, which has been a big part of it. What we haven’t been able to do is make the progress offensively we need to. Over the weekend, what we did do was we scored 64 in the second half on Saturday and then 61 in the second half on Sunday. It’s a product of, simply put, ball movement and playing more inside-out and then we also cut down on our turnovers. We had gone from the first 20 games where we were sixth in turnovers to 22nd. Every team has things they have to do in order to play well. I know it sounds basic or very general to say ‘we have to move the ball,’ but we really have to move the ball. When we get the second defender the ball has to move quickly and on time. And when we do, we have a lot of skill out there. We just don’t have a lot of ways to put enormous pressure on the defense and the ball can’t stick when we do.