Orlando Magic buying into Steve Clifford, buying into themselves

The Orlando Magic's future depends on how Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac come together. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's future depends on how Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac come together. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are on a tear winning five of their last six games and re-emerging in the Playoff race. They are buying into their coach and themselves.

After the Orlando Magic defeated the Atlanta Hawks 124-108 at State Farm Arena on Sunday, a reporter asked coach Steve Clifford if at the beginning of the season his team believed it could make the Playoffs.

Clifford shrugged at the question.

Of course, the team had Playoffs as a goal. The Magic were not going to limit themselves to any expectations. But the most basic thing is to compete for something. They believed they were a Playoff team but knew they would have to prove it on the floor.

With less than a week to go before the All-Star Break, the Magic are squarely within the race. After winning three in a row and five of the past six games, Orlando is just 1.5 games out of the final Playoffs pot.

There is still a lot of work to do. But the Magic still see that opportunity in front of them.

Player after player said they are playing for something now. But they are not taking it for granted. They know the work is not done by this overly simplistic goal.

Then Clifford gave the Magic perhaps the greatest compliment a coach can give a team after a game like this. Orlando had just earned a professional win.

Sunday was a game where everything was stacked against the Magic. They were traveling from Milwaukee on a back to back while the Hawks sat at home and waited (after their own home game). Orlando did not get into town until around 3 a.m. It is a physically taxing event for any team.

Of course, that is not an excuse. Not for a team hoping to make the Playoffs and scratch out every win they can. And against an opponent struggling near the bottom of the standings (although a good reminder of how far the Magic can still fall).

What Orlando did Sunday then was more impressive. The Magic blew the doors open dominating almost from the first quarter all the way through.

Their defense was fantastic forcing turnovers and defending the rim and paint. They made shots and moved the ball. Orlando led by as much as 27 points in a game that saw the team post a balanced scoring effort and dominate all the way through.

If there was ever a sign of the Magic’s increasing confidence and growth it was this. They played a boring, uneventful game where they did exactly what would be expected of them.

There was very little for anyone to complain about and the team came away not congratulating themselves on a good game but focused on the next one.

That is a professional win.

And the fact the Magic won a game like this is a sign of something even greater — because there is always a greater takeaway. Clifford’s message is sinking in and taking root. Or it has taken root and now the tree is starting to grow.

The Magic have bought into Clifford’s message. They are growing and improving and coming together in a major way.

What felt like a pipe dream even a few weeks ago has turned into a confirmation of the team’s faith in a season-long project. The team is gelling and figuring things out, slowly finding some consistency. Or maybe they have hit a strong patch at the right time and are surging in a momentary burst.

In either case, the Magic are playing meaningful games after the trade deadline and into the All-Star Break. Their record of 25-32 is hardly impressive. But those 25 wins matches the team’s total from last season.

And the way Orlando is winning is even more impressive for the moment.

It has been a while since the Magic last had a win like this. Much less been in a position where there were teams the Magic were simply expected to show up and beat. Orlando cannot quite do that yet — play a poor game and then find a way to win. But the team has struggled put these kinds of teams and games away.

Even this season, the Magic have stared down easy parts of the schedule and struggled to get through them and bank up the wins necessary.

Orlando is a team capable of beating anyone and losing to anyone. That is still very true. The Magic are far from counting their recent success as anything permanent. But the signs are all there to the team making some tangible progress.

Young players are developing and improving to the point where they are contirubiting in major ways to a Playoff chase. It may have taken some time and the team may have taken some bumps to get there, but the team is growing in confidence.

That is all coming from the belief they are sharing with their coach.

Clifford has instilled in them a faith in each other and the system he is running that is producing results. At long last, the team is trusting each other and the coaching staff completely in a way they have not at any point in this rebuild.

This Magic team is clearly determined to make a Playoff push. The veteran players like Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon have talked about this openly, even if their coach is not willing to put expectations on the team at least publicly. They have struggled to do the things winning teams must do.

That part is changing slowly. Orlando is limiting losing streaks and slowly starting to realize and understand the work it takes for them to win games.

It has been a long process to get here. But the Magic never lost contact with the pack and is now making its move up the standings. They are only doing this because their trust and confidence in each other has deepened.

This has been perhaps the greatest achievement for Clifford to date. He has gotten this team to believe in itself and put them in positions to succeed. He has looked at the big picture and made moves that instill that confidence for moments exactly like this.

The Magic are still building their franchise up from the ground. Clifford’s job this year was to lay a foundation for the long-term success.

Next. Grades: Orlando Magic 124, Atlanta Hawks 108. dark

Those roots have been planted. And the flowers of that work are already beginning to blossom.