The Magic are following Steve Clifford’s example, and it’s making a huge difference
By Josh Robbins
MEXICO CITY — The Orlando Magic are starting to adopt the personality of their coach.
Steve Clifford is hard-nosed, relentless and tough.
On Saturday, Magic players were hard-nosed, relentless and tough, too.
They found an inner strength they often lacked in recent years. They overcame Mexico City’s thin air, their own turnover woes and the fact they were playing a so-called home game in another country, and they beat the Utah Jazz, 96-89.
In the first three quarters, Orlando scored only 55 points and gave the ball away 19 times.
In the fourth, Orlando dominated.
“I just feel like we don’t get enough credit as far as just being a fighting team,” said swingman Evan Fournier, who scored a team-high 24 points.
“We’ve been in hard situations before, but we fought through it. I don’t know why people don’t mention it at all. You have to ask them. With the new coaching staff, I think it starts with Cliff. Cliff is definitely a tough guy, and it kind of (rubs off) on us.”
The entire week qualified as a difficult situation, the kind of adversity that used to make the Magic wilt.
They had lost three consecutive games, looking flat-out awful in blowout defeats to the Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks. And then, the Magic left for Mexico City, to play a pair of games that counted as Magic home games. It seemed like the team was starting to collapse, or at least was showing that its promising 12-12 start had been a fluke. Even Magic players acknowledged that their game Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls was a must-win; lose that game, and the Magic’s negative momentum could have snowballed out of control.
They struggled to find any offensive rhythm Thursday, but with Nikola Vucevic carrying them in the fourth quarter, they ground out a victory over the Bulls, 97-91.
For long stretches Saturday, their offense looked even worse than it did against Chicago. When the Magic weren’t committing turnovers, they were flummoxed by Utah’s perennial NBA Defensive Player of the Year candidate, shot-blocking big man Rudy Gobert.
And then a surprising thing happened: The Magic made 12 of their first 15 shots in the fourth quarter.
They had Terrence Ross to thank for that. Ross hurt his back in Thursday’s game, and his back still ached Saturday. When the Magic and Bulls tipped off, Ross wore a heating pad, hoping to keep loose enough to be effective. He continued to wear the pad whenever he sat on the bench.
Orlando trailed 65-62 when Ross drilled a 3-pointer from 26 feet. On Orlando’s next possession, he sank another 3. On the possession after that, he made a floater from 10 feet. The Magic never trailed again.
“We play with a lot of resilience,” Ross said after he scored 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting. “I feel like we need to play more like that. We had a lot of excuses today. It could be fatigue, the new arena, the whatever. But we found a way to get it done.
“I think it’s just a mindset we all came in with this year. I think it’s really Cliff. He’s done a good job of getting everybody to buy in, and that’s probably one of the main things. We’ve got to be resilient. We’ve got to come back no matter how we played in the games before. We have a way to play now. We have to play that way every night.”
The difficulty of the job that Clifford inherited when the Magic hired him in May cannot be overstated.
He took over a team that had just endured its sixth consecutive losing season, a dreadful year in which it had gone 25-57. For the team’s longest-tenured players — Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Vucevic — Clifford is their fifth coach since the start of the 2014-15 season.
But Clifford has found a way to connect. He has been consistent with his message: The Magic can reach the playoffs now if they establish a hard-nosed, smart and tough way to play and stick to it.
Clifford has a sense of humor, but he also exudes toughness. He grew up in towns in Maine and Vermont, places that value old-fashioned hard work and grit. He worked his way up the coaching ladder, going from low-paying jobs at high schools and small colleges to one of the NBA’s most exhausting jobs, a role as an advance scout. He worked as an assistant coach under Jeff Van Gundy and Stan Van Gundy, two overachievers and grinders who fought their way to the top of their profession.
Just how tough is Clifford?
In 2013, during his first season as the Charlotte Bobcats’ head coach, he suffered chest pains and underwent a procedure to have two stents implanted in arteries leading to his heart. Several days later, he was back coaching again.
In latter seasons, he suffered from debilitating headaches brought about from a chronic lack of sleep. Last season, he took a leave of absence and, after spending a month and a half improving his sleeping habits, returned to the bench.
The Magic needed his grit.
Sure, there are games in which the team reverts to its old ways. The losses to the Pacers and Mavericks are examples of that.
At the same time, though, the Magic have proven they can bounce back. In October, they followed a one-point loss in Philadelphia with a win in Boston. Last month, they were blown out in Denver but won their next game, beating LeBron James’ Lakers in Los Angeles. And now, the Magic have followed the losses to Indiana and Dallas with wins over Chicago and Utah.
“The difference in this team is just our attitude,” point guard D.J. Augustin said. “In the past, we’d lose a few games and just keep losing because we would get down on ourselves.
“I just think it’s our mindset. I think we’re tired of losing. I think we’re tired of not being in the playoff talk and just tired of not being there at the end of the season. We don’t want to be like that this year.”
Under Clifford, just about everyone on the Magic roster is sacrificing something.
Augustin, for instance, absorbs punishment when he navigates screens set by opposing bigs. Gordon has cut down on wild shot attempts and instead looks more often to pass. And Vucevic is playing effective defense for the first time in his career.
“This year, obviously, we’re playing better ball,” Vucevic said after he paired 15 points with a game-high 19 rebounds. “We’re more organized on the floor on defense and offensively. I think that, most important, we just have more confidence in ourselves. Even when things don’t go our way in games … we just stick with it and we try to find a way.”
Magic players did that in their two games here.
They were hard-nosed, relentless and tough.
They were like their coach.
“That was a terrific win because of the way we won, the way we fought,” Clifford said.