Steve Clifford raises the standard for Orlando Magic with short postgame message

On October 17, 2018, Orlando Magic head coach Steve Clifford yells during the first half against the Miami Heat at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla. He had plenty to yell about again on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, in a 120-88 loss at home to the Charlotte Hornets. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
On October 17, 2018, Orlando Magic head coach Steve Clifford yells during the first half against the Miami Heat at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla. He had plenty to yell about again on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, in a 120-88 loss at home to the Charlotte Hornets. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images) /

Steve Clifford is not here for moral victories. He is raising the standards for the Orlando Magic already not accepting a good enough effort.

Following a 30-point loss to the Charlotte Hornets, coach Steve Clifford expected a better effort from his Orlando Magic even against a good Philadelphia 76ers team on the road the next night. A strong start quickly fell apart and Philadelphia started to hit shots and tear apart the defense.

The Magic did exactly what Clifford wanted. They kept fighting and never took themselves completely out of it. Unlike Friday’s game, the Magic did not let the deficit get out of control. They kept it close and made one last run.

When Terrence Ross hit a half-court heave to beat the shot clock buzzer and give the Magic a one-point lead with 80 seconds to play, the confidence seemed to be overflowing. That is what everyone told Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel after the game.

Part of the shift for the Magic is a shift in expectations and culture. And the team has shown some incredible fight and scrappiness throughout the preseason and early in the season (as small a sample size as that might be). There is a change.

But the results are still the results. Orlando nearly blew an eight-point lead late in the team’s lone win and took a 30-point blowout at home in the second game.

Even on this site, the posture we took coming out of Saturday’s game was that Orlando showed fight and took a step forward in buying into their culture and principles but ultimately falling short.

There were a lot of things to improve upon and clean up. A lot. But the team was headed back in the right direction. It was an encouraging effort.

Clifford was having none of that. Instead, his postgame press conference was a burst of frustration before leaving without taking questions. And he is absolutely right:

"“We were better but we should have won the game,” Clifford said. “Two huge defensive mistake plays late that we had defended the whole game. You can’t make those mistakes and win on the road against a good team. Whatever. We played better, but that is not what this league is about. That’s a game right there that was there to be won. There were plays to be made and you have to make them.”"

It was a short and terse statement. A frustrated coach unwilling to accept baby steps in the process but demanding results. When the wins are there, the expectation is to get them. Leaving wins on the board because of individual mistakes is not something to accept or ignore.

It is a different tact than what the team has seen from other coaches perhaps. Especially early in the season.

It would be easy to say early in the season the team is coming together and need some time to keep developing and growing. Especially after a blowout loss and coming against an Eastern Conference contender, the results Saturday night were somewhat encouraging.

But that is not where the team wants to go. This is the thinking of a franchise that has in many ways accepted losing and looks for the simple positives. But that is not how a culture changes.

Clifford is sending a clear statement to his team: Moral victories do not exist and good is not good enough without the results that follow. This team is going to be about wins. And that is the ultimate measure of success.

Clifford is imploring his team here to have the focus and attention to detail to do the right things no matter what point of the game because that is necessary to win. The team’s margin for error is small — on both ends — and lacking focus even for a moment has already seen the team face some poor results.

Take that final play Clifford is referring to.

J.J. Redick does a good job setting up Terrence Ross on this screen. He curls around Joel Embiid and then turns back when he sees Terrence Ross overpursuing. He gets a second screen from Embiid which gives him the space to shoot the 3-pointer.

Nikola Vucevic is late to challenge the shot and looks a bit confused over his assignment. He too overplays Redick on the first screen and then drops too far trying to recover. He is in no position to challenge.

This has been a long-running and fair criticism of Nikola Vucevic and his defensive ability for several years. And it certainly burned him here with his lack of decisiveness and misreading of the play.

But it is probably not just that play Clifford is referring to. There were other defensive mistakes late in the game and, of course, Aaron Gordon left the game-tying free throw on the board.

Both he and Vucevic helped fight to get a jump ball and give the Magic one last chance to win the game.

The Magic generally did play better. They showed the exact response they needed to have following the blowout loss to the Hornets. Orlando was focused, energetic and moving the ball effectively. Those were all positives.

But the team made criticial and basic errors it would seem that left a win on the board.

Clifford is right to feel frustrated and hold his team accountable for giving up a game that they very well could have won. That is the standard he is trying to set. And making this early season statement — at least, publicly — is vital to shifting the expectations of what is possible and, more importantly, what is acceptable for this team.

This early in the season, Clifford is trying to establish a standard. He is trying to get the team to buy in fully to what it will take to find success.

That standard was set with his words after Saturday’s loss. Simply showing up and playing well is not enough. The Magic want more. They want wins.

Next. Nikola Vucevic fighting back against fan's blame. dark

The next game will be the next test of whether the Magic have learned that lesson and are fully locked in to deliver the results they need.