Steve Clifford Answers Questions During Virtual Event With Magic Season Ticket Holders

ORLANDO - While acknowledging that the stoppage in the NBA season couldn’t have come at a worse time for an Orlando Magic team that had hit its stride by early March, head coach Steve Clifford confidently told a group of season-ticketholders on Thursday that he feels the future is still bright for the team when play ultimately resumes.

``I believe that in this last year-plus, we’ve taken a step where in this (NBA) we’re more relevant again and I think we’re becoming respected as a team that’s difficult to play against,’’ Clifford said via an exclusive Zoom call with Magic season-ticketholders on Thursday afternoon. ``And this is just the beginning.

``NBA basketball is all about having playoff success – I understand that, and the players understand that,’’ Clifford continued. ``We were playing much better at the end and we had like the second or third-easiest schedule left, so this pandemic – which is much more important than basketball – came at a bad time for so many reasons. But we have good young pieces, I like the guys we have, they’re good representatives of our organization and I think the future of our team is bright.’’

Like many sports’ fans and avid Magic supporters, Clifford was stunned when the NBA decided to suspend its season on March 11 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. At the time of the league suspension, Clifford’s Magic had won three games in a row, six of nine and eight of 12 to move comfortably into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. At 30-35, the Magic sit just a half-game back of the Brooklyn Nets for the seventh seed – a spot Orlando feels confident that it can nab as long as there are regular-season games played prior to the start of the NBA playoffs.

The NBA is allowing teams in states that are starting to ease off their stay-at-home orders to begin holding light, individual workouts for players on Friday. The Magic, meanwhile, aren’t expected to reopen their practice facility at the Amway Center to players until next week – something that has Clifford excited even though rules will prohibit him from working with players for a period of time as the league slowly works its way back while continuing to practice various safety measures. Initially, NBA teams will be allowed to have no more than four players in the gymnasium at a time and they will be spaced out at different baskets during workouts. Also, facilities will undergo major cleaning details on a nightly basis in an effort to curb any potential spreads of the coronavirus.

Clifford said he is already starting for formulate plans in his head for when the Magic are allowed to practice in full. Because players usually get in a host of work outs prior to training camps starting in late September, this restart will be completely different because many players haven’t touched a basketball in weeks due to strict stay-at-home measures in various states, Clifford stressed.

``I think the biggest challenge from a coach’s standpoint is to figure out how much we can put in with players,’’ Clifford said. ``We’re going to have at least two or three weeks here of individual work, so the earliest we could hope to get back (to full team practice sessions) would be three or four weeks from now.

``This is a new experience for everybody because never have we gone into a training camp where everybody hasn’t already been playing a lot of five-on-five,’’ Clifford added. ``Usually, in September, they come in early and play a lot of five-on-five and when you start training camp you are ready to hit with contact. This will be very unique, and we’ve got to do a very good job (in individual workouts) these next two-to—three weeks. I’ll be relying on (High Performance Director) David Tenney a great deal with this to see how good of shape we’re in and figuring out how much contact we can have when we start camp. You have to start at the beginning and start over like they haven’t played together all year and figure out how much offense and how much defense they can handle.’’

Clifford, who guided the Magic to the playoffs in 2019 in his first season as Orlando’s head coach, said he’s tried to remain in constant contact with the team’s players via phone calls, text messages and team-wide video conference calls. However, unlike during the season when his thoughts rarely stray too far from the task at hand, Clifford said his conversations have rarely had little to do with basketball.

``I’m more about talking to them and making sure that they are OK and we didn’t get into a lot of basketball,’’ said Clifford, who pointed out the work the Magic Strength and Conditioning staff did in getting cardio equipment and weights to players so that they could stay in shape while staying home. ``These guys are grown men and obviously very successful, but with leadership what you do has to make sense for the players. I just think with where we’re at – in such a difficult time for all of us – when people are worrying about relatives, friends and children, I just didn’t find it to be the right time to call up and talk about pick-and-roll defense. That’s the way we’ve done it and we’ve talked them about the opportunities to stay in shape. But we’ve taken a step back in terms of delving into basketball during this time.’’

When the Magic do get back going in full, Clifford is hopeful that his team can recapture the stellar form that it found in late February and early March. In the 12 games prior to the stoppage of the season – eight of them victories – the Magic offense shot up to first in the NBA in scoring (120.8), first in assists per game (32.1), first in field goal makes per game (45.1), second in field goal percentage (48.6 percent) and 13thin 3-point percentage (37 percent). Those are, of course, major improvements over the first 53 games of a choppy, up-and-down season (103.1 points per game; 22.8 assists per game; 37.9 field goal makes a game; 43.1 percent field goal percentage; 33.4 percent 3-point percentage).

``In terms of the team improvement part, it was pace of play, better screening and we were much more inside/out,’’ Clifford said on Thursday. ``We did a lot better job of finding ways to penetrate – with cuts and passing.

``The other part was, individually, we had a bunch of guys who played at a high, high levels,’’ Clifford added. ``(Nikola Vucevic’s) numbers and play were terrific, (Terrence Ross’) numbers were terrific, Evan (Fournier’s) was very good, (Aaron Gordon) was great and it was Markelle (Fultz’s) best stretch of play. D.J. (Augustin) was back and healthy and played well and the acquisition of James Ennis really solidified our team. The way he plays – shooting the ball and guarding primary scorers – really solidified our team. So, I’m hoping we can get back to that level again.’’

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