Steve Clifford building team’s culture by demanding more

The Orlando Magic have proven themselves a resilient team. But that is not enough to get the results they desire. And coach Steve Clifford knows it.

The difference between a 40-minute college — or FIBA — game and a 48-minute NBA game is much more than those eight minutes. Those eight minutes seemingly separate so much. Plenty of teams can compete for that shorter time period, but that extended time is an eternity.

It takes something different to get those final eight minutes. It takes something different to play with the urgency and focus required to get to the finish line.

It is in these final eight minutes that culture is built. When a team is mentally strained and has to execute as time ticks do they respond? When a team meets its lull, how do they play and what do they rely on?

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford knows all of this. Having coached under taskmasters like Pat Riley and Stan Van Gundy, he has seen teams at their absolute best. He has seen teams that have the focus and strength to overcome even their own shortcomings to win.

Clifford has helped build that mentality in his teams. And that is perhaps the most difficult task.

It is no surprise Clifford has used his postgame press conferences to deliver clear messages of what he expects from his team when they disappoint. He is not someone that is going to let opportunities get squandered or beat around the bush to stroke egos.

There is an expectation level the team has to meet. and when they fall short he is not going to pretty it up.

Following the Orlando Magic’s loss to the Golden State Warriors on Monday, he told the assembled media (h/t Josh Robbins of The Athletic), “Listen, I’ve told you before we have to stop with that shit,” when he was asked of taking solace in pushing the defending champions to the brink.

His message was abundantly clear once again following the Orlando Magic’s 115-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. A game that saw Orlando lose an 11-point lead — a second straight game losing a double-digit lead, an all-too-common occurrence this season — and then turn the ball over four times in the final two minutes with a chance to win.

In 33 seconds he distilled the exact issue with the Magic.

“We’ve got to get tougher. You play that offensive game against that team in this arena, you’ve got to win that game. You’ve got to get some loose balls, you’ve got to block out every once in a while. They hammered us on the glass and beat us to every loose ball, which is a major weakness for our team. We got out-efforted on anything tough. We play hard with the things that come natural to us. We move the ball. We had good energy. We’ve got to get tougher. That’s it.”

The common descriptor for this Magic team so far this season is “resilient.” And that is a good quality.

Unlike previous iterations of this team, the Magic do not seem like they will fold or quit when they give up a run. The Magic went up 11 in the third quarter of Wednesday’s game, only to see it deteriorate. But they responded with a run of their own to give them a chance to win.

That is a small step but it is a step. It is rare for the Magic not to have a chance to win at the end of games.

But Clifford is rightly telling his team — and the fan base — this is not enough. What feels like a small victory for a franchise that has been largely irrelevant for six years.

But this is still a zero-sum game. There is one winner and one loser and nothing in between. This is constantly the message Clifford is trying to preach.

Evan Fournier was asked about Steve Clifford’s comments after the game. He disagreed that the team lacked any kind of physical toughness. The team did plenty to give itself a chance to win. But he agreed there was a toughness to execute down the stretch the team lacked.

This is probably what Clifford is getting at more than anything. It is understanding that effort for some of the time is not enough. It is about having the toughness to get through those final eight minutes and the focus and intensity to play through the whole game at a consistent level.

That is the part that is lacking with this Magic team.

Wednesday against the Blazers, the Magic had plenty of mistakes throughout the game. They gave up a ton of offensive rebounds and lost track of Damian Lillard in transition. There was plenty for a coach to criticize. Orlando played well enough to hold a double-digit lead. But just not well enough the whole time.

But down the stretch, Orlando gave itself a chance to win. The Magic locked in defensively down the stretch to go on a 10-0 run to make it a game. But then it was their own mistakes that prevented them from winning the game.

Evan Fournier admitted he made bad plays down the stretch — passing it too short on one turnover trying to get the ball to Nikola Vucevic and then passing it too late on a fast break to D.J. Augustin. These were purely mental mistakes. As we as Nikola Vucevic’s foul on Damian Lillard while chasing down an offensive rebound following a Jonathan Isaac block.

What Clifford is trying to preach is the team needs the mental toughness to get through those final moments. It is the composure to execute on both ends and find a way.

For a young team like the Magic, these are the moments where culture is born. These are the moments where a team forms its identity or reveals its true character.

The Magic are clearly still a team forming that identity. And Clifford knows it.

That is why he is pushing the team to be the best version of itself. He sees the potential. Fans can clearly see the potential of this group.

That makes seeing the team fall back into bad habits or perform inconsistently so frustrating.

For as much as fun as it is to be competitive again, the reality is Orlando has left games on the board that they should have won — including the last two. This is still a team that is learning how to win and that is evident on the court.

Clifford knows he has to hold a firm line to keep the team on the right path. That is what these statements are about. An affirmation that the team can be better. They can clearly see it. It has always been about walking that path and doing it.

The Magic are plenty resilient. They are a strong team that bounces back well from their mistakes to give themselves a chance to win. But that final piece is still missing. That closing piece.

Orlando has played plenty of close games already. They have given themselves plenty of chances to win. But their ability to close games comfortably and execute at the end of games is still suspect. Orlando has seen many of its leads slip away.

Clifford sees a team that can be greater than what it is playing right now. And he is doing everything he can to get the team to act like it.