Steve Clifford Discusses NBA’s Restart on NBA Radio and 96.9 The Game

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic were playing their best basketball of the season during the few weeks before the NBA went on a hiatus due to the global pandemic. They had won eight of their last 12, ranking No. 1 in points and No. 2 in both assists and field goal percentage over that span.

With the NBA planning on restarting the season on July 31 in Orlando at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, the Magic will hope to pick up where they left off and clinch a second straight playoff berth. The work they have put in while away from the court gives head coach Steve Clifford and his players a ton of optimism as the resumption of the season draws closer.

At the time of the league’s stoppage, the Magic were sitting in eighth place in the East, just a half-game back of the seventh-placed Brooklyn Nets and 5 ½ games ahead of the ninth-placed Washington Wizards. All 22 teams invited to Disney will play eight “seeding” games prior to the start of the postseason. Wins and losses recorded during those pre-playoff contests will be added on to the current East and West standings.

If the team in eighth at the end of that pre-playoff window has more than a four-game lead on the team in ninth, the postseason field will be set. However, if the team in ninth is within four games of the team in eighth, a play-in tournament will be held between the No. 8 and 9 seeds. The No. 8 team will only have to win once, while the No. 9 team will have to win twice to advance to the playoffs. The same applies in the Western Conference, although more teams from the West will be participating.

The goal for the Magic once they reconvene and begin practicing as a team again is to leapfrog the Nets and secure the No. 7 spot. Not only would they then likely avoid playing Giannis Antetokounmpo and the 53-12 Bucks in the first round, but they would also dodge the play-in matchup and instead gear up for a seven-game series against either the Toronto Raptors or Boston Celtics, the second and third-placed teams at the moment in the East.

Clifford is confident in his squad, which he expressed during two radio interviews on Friday morning. The 58-year-old, who is in his second year as the head coach of the Magic, spoke with Frank Isola and Rick Kamla on NBA Radio and then Mike Bianchi on 96.9 The Game. Below are pieces of the transcripts from each of the two conversations.

NBA Radio

ISOLA: “I keep thinking you are the most powerful man in the NBA because there are going to be playoffs and you are going to have home-court advantage and not only that, they are sending everyone down to Disney to be at your place. How strange is this going to be with the entire NBA in your city down in Orlando?”

CLIFFORD: “Let me just start with this. These are obviously trying times for our country and I think we are all hopeful that when we get started down here we can use our game and the platform that will provide us to do our part in making a positive impact and the changes that need to take place so that we’re all more proud to live as citizens in our country. There is obviously an urgency right now across our country when you watch what’s happening for all of us to come together and make those changes. My staff and I are working here to get involved in that and we’re excited about trying to be a part in making those changes. That’s part of our excitement also.

The other part, we are excited to get back on the court with our guys, in the gym and be part of the buildup and then hopefully the playoffs.”

ISOLA: “Your team when the season got suspended (was) 30-35. You’re five-and-a-half games up on Washington. I think it’s pretty fair to say if we had played all 82 games and the season had not been suspended, there’s a very good chance you guys would have been either the eight seed or the seven seed. But now, Washington is going down there. So, there is a chance if you guys don’t move up to seven that you could be playing perhaps in some kind of play-in game. What about that whole scenario? Do you think it’s fair and what about the idea of bringing teams down to compete for that eighth and final playoff spot?”

CLIFFORD: “I’m going to share this with our guys actually. I feel like we were a playoff team and the other big part of that is that we had the second easiest schedule left in the league. So, we had played the second most difficult schedule. There’s no easy nights in this league but it was going to be conducive to finishing strong. But, with that being said, our commissioner and the leadership group of the NBA have done a phenomenal job. The amount of work from the committees they set up at every level – from ownership to presidents to GMs – everything has been studied. His communication with the players, his communication with the coaches. And there’s no way in this situation that you are going to be able to do something where everybody was happy.

My mentality – and I hope this is the mentality of our team – is let’s get to seven. Or, let’s be more than four games ahead of Washington, so there is no play-in game. There’s no way you’re going to make everybody happy. I know how organized this has been, how much detail has been put into it. I think, like everybody else, I’m totally comfortable with all the results they come up with.”

KAMLA: “As obviously a longtime member of the NBA coaching community as an assistant and now as a head coach, you know all these guys. You know (Rick) Carlisle, you know Lionel (Hollins), you know (Gregg) Pop(ovich), you know of all these guys really, really well. What’s your level of comfort with how older coaches and all coaches will be protected in this bubble?”

CLIFFORD: “It’s not how old you are, it’s how healthy you are. Look, I’ve had health issues as you know. I’ve been given a clean bill of health. I’m actually healthier now than I was say six years ago, seven years ago in Charlotte when I had an issue. It’s not age. Health is not age if you understand it. It’s how hard you take care of yourself. There are a lot of layers to that and a lot that goes into it.”

ISOLA: “For your team, it’s going to be a little odd because Florida, for the most part, the state is open. Your players all have a place to live in Orlando. But you guys are going to be in this quarantined hotel. What about the challenges and just that whole thing that’s going to be in play?”

CLIFFORD: “We’ve started to talk to our guys a little about that. One thing I’m excited about is they are excited to get going. We have a good group. Since the league has allowed us to bring guys in and work out individually, we’ve had strong participation. Most of our guys are here in Orlando. They’ve been in the gym working. I think that so much of this is using that time to your full advantage. There could be more time during the day that we can spend at improving your team play, studying how you’re playing and giving yourself a better chance to play well more quickly.”

96.9 THE GAME

BIANCHI: “Obviously, the goal for you guys is to get to that seven spot. You’re a half-game behind Brooklyn. That was going to be the goal anyways, right?”

CLIFFORD: “If we would have played the remainder of the schedule, we would have played them twice more. We are 2-0 against them on the year but we would have played them two more times. If you get to seven, you’re looking at probably playing Toronto or Boston – both in the top five in the NBA in overall record. Milwaukee is just such a great, great team and they were playing at an incredibly high level. They are beyond a challenge.”

BIANCHI: “Twenty-two teams are going to be in Orlando for an extended period of time. Do you think that could help the Magic in the future as far as potential free agents, having all the teams here? Even though it’s going to be sort of quarantined down at Disney. Do you think maybe that could help the Magic?”

CLIFFORD: “I think so. It’s a great place to live. No state taxes. And I think it always comes down to the same thing. It would be opportunity to win big. And then it’s quality of life for them and their families. To me, it’s a terrific place to live. The weather is great and again, no state taxes.

Stan (Van Gundy) will tell you this. When they signed Rashard Lewis, who had been an All-Star in Seattle, to come here – it wasn’t maybe a high, high profile signing – but his signing and then his willingness to play the four-spot and the way Stan utilized him was obviously one of the two or three key moves in the success we had here in ‘09 and during that stretch.”

BIANCHI: “He (Stan Van Gundy) has been appointed to an NBA coaching committee to study racial injustice in this country. What are your thoughts about what’s going on in the country right now? What sort of things are you seeing from your players and talking to your players about, if anything?”

CLIFFORD: “Stan has impacted me in a lot of ways. We talk about the issues in our country a lot. Right now, we have a racism issue, which has been going on forever. You mentioned a racial injustice issue. We have a police accountability issue. And I do think that besides being excited to get back on the floor with our team, the other thing that’s going to happen is it’s going to give all of us an opportunity to use our game and the platform it will provide to help make a positive impact in changing, the changes that need to take place in our country. I’m actually now looking for and investigating different organizations in the Orlando area because I want to be involved in making positive change. I’m going to try and find someone or an organization to work with and play a part in all that. Our coaches association is committed to taking a bigger part in that change and I know we are all committed to it.”

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