Steve Clifford never put limits on the Orlando Magic and now he wants more

Before the Orlando Magic take their next step, coach Steve Clifford has to repeat the results from 2019. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Before the Orlando Magic take their next step, coach Steve Clifford has to repeat the results from 2019. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Steve Clifford never set a goal for the Orlando Magic to reach. He just wanted them to be better each day. Now that they are in, he wants more for them.

The Orlando Magic’s pre-packaged hype promos on FOX Sports Florida feature Steve Clifford sitting in front of a fairly generic blue background explaining his expectations for the season.

His answer echoed something similar when media types (like me) ask him what constitutes success this season. For a city and a team that had been starved for a playoff berth and for any opportunity to play meaningful basketball, everyone wanted to know when this team would break through.

Clifford is not into that touchy, feely stuff. His focus is directed on the team and helping them get the most out of themselves through his brand of tough, caring love and instruction.

His answer was simple and direct — as they always are. He would put no expectations on his team. He would not say they will make the playoffs — perhaps a trap the franchise had fallen into during the previous two seasons.

Instead, the team’s goals would be to play with a competitive spirit, to put winning above all else and to keep working to improve.

Those were more personal and individual goals, not something overarching. In fairness, it could be a hedge to keep expectations a bit more fluid and not tied to the winning column.

But Clifford is also a serious enough coach that winning is what mattered. He made that constantly clear.

He would never shy from saying this was a playoff team and they could beat anyone. After Orlando picked up a big win he would point to that as an example of what this team could do and remind everyone, even when the team was struggling, of that potential.

Of course, those fluid expectations swing the other way.

Now that the Magic have clinched their spot in the postseason — even drawing a smile from the usually stoic and demanding Clifford — he did not think that was enough.

In the locker room after everyone had finished their initial celebrations, he congratulated his team and told them to enjoy the accomplishment. But they should want more. They can achieve more.

"“First of all, from day one whatever were — 11 under — you guys kept working and kept fighting, but we did it the right way,” Clifford said in the locker room after the game (see video above). “We’re getting better and better and the best can be yet to come.“The second one, this is great. No matter what, you’ve done a great job. Let’s want more. If we can come in here [the TD Garden] and play that kind of game, back against the wall, bad breaks, you guys made play after play tonight. If we use these next few days, we can beat anybody. And that’s the way we need to be thinking.”"

The team does not want to be satisfied with just getting in. There were never any limits or expectations put on this team.

At the beginning of the season, the playoffs felt like an achievable but still lofty goal. If that had been the expectation to start the season, then the year would be over now with nothing left to reach for.

But now the Magic can keep moving the goalposts, so to speak. They never set that limit and so now they have not achieved everything yet. There is more to go after.

No one will pretend winning in the first round is going to be easy for this team. The Magic have a lot of holes to fill and will face a tough opponent. But the playoffs were a dream once and now they are a reality. The team is not going to cut itself short from any goals.

This is part of the brilliance from Clifford as a coach.

The message he gave this team from the start was one focused on daily improvement. With that, the team would scratch out wins. This is how the foundations for a culture or an identity — or whatever anyone wants to call it — is formed.

Clifford probably is not into those words so much as the work it takes to give those words meaning. And he went to work with this team. This team was willing to listen to him, believing even when there was little room for belief.

That too is part of the reason Clifford has found so much success.

Clifford would say even on the team’s worst days how much he believes this team could be good when they played the way they know they can play. When they defended and moved the ball with the pass and got into the paint to dish out to the perimeter, the Magic were a high-level team. He was saying that even when they were 20-31 and struggling to stay in the playoff picture.

Clifford never lost belief in this team. That is probably why he was so insistent they play better in postgame rants after they tried to skate through games or abandon the identity he knew they could take on.

There were plenty of moments like that where Clifford called out his team publicly. It came from that place of belief they could do better. It was angry, but disappointment. And the Magic responded each time.

There were no limits.

The second part of his statement is also true though. The Magic can and should enjoy their moment for a day. But there is still work to do. When you are focused on improving and getting better there is always more work to do.

Orlando has the same opportunity as the other 15 teams who will make the field. They will be 16 wins away from reaching their ultimate goal.

The margin for error for the Magic to get there is obviously greater than a whole lot of other teams. Orlando will have more work to do than others.

But this team has never backed down from a challenge this year. They have never been satisfied with little successes. And making the playoffs might be a slightly bigger one, but it is not the ultimate prize.

Next. Orlando Magic never backed down and now they are playoff-bound. dark

Clifford and the Magic want more.