The Orlando Magic have used fast finishes to solidify playoff spots. The team is focused on a faster start especially now with a tough schedule looming.
The schedule allows him to set his calendar. Often teams do schedule out practices months in advance. They have trips to plan, after all. The outline of the season gets set when the schedule comes out.
The one thing Clifford tries not to do is fall into the trap of predicting where the soft spots in the schedule are and where the team might be able to pick up wins. There are no “easy” parts of a schedule. They are all still NBA teams.
"“The biggest thing that you learn in this league is you can’t overreact to the schedule,” Clifford said in a teleconference Friday. “Some years you can look at a schedule and say we should get off to a good start and then injuries, travel, guys have big games against you. And then you look at stretches where you think that is going to be difficult and you hit it right and other teams aren’t playing as well. You have to find a way for your team to play and you need total buy-in on that.”"
The season is more about development for him. It is more about what the team needs to do. And putting them in the best position possible. He wants the team to be playing its best basketball at the end of the season leading into the playoffs.
After two years with the Magic, it is safe to say he knows how to get the team to that point.
But the Magic know they need to get off to a better start. They know they cannot afford to wait until 50 games into the season to get everything together.
A clear goal for the Magic is to put themselves in a better position so that when they are peaking later in the season, they will be able to make gains rather than scramble to make the postseason.
After two years have to go on runs late, the Magic are determined to lead the pack.
"“I feel like each season we start out slow,” Carter-Williams said in a media teleconference Wednesday. “I think us getting out to a start and giving us some room to work with. I think if we get out to a good start and we are all communicating with each other and doing the right things on the court will take us a long way when we get to the second half of the season.”"
That has been the pattern Clifford has taken in his two years with the Magic. The team needed the early part of the season to get themselves together and then went on a torrid run around the All-Star Break as the team settled in and put things together.
The Magic started 20-31 in both the 2019 and 2020 seasons. They went 22-9 to make the playoffs in 2019. Orlando finished the season 13-9 (including 3-8 in the seeding round after the season resumed) in 2020.
The Magic felt very confident they were turning a corner right when the season went on its pandemic hiatus. They feel confident the changes they made will lead the team to a faster start. That is something they are keenly focused on.
With the schedule the team had ahead of it before the season went on the pandemic hiatus, the Magic figured to have another strong run to the end of the season. The one thing Clifford seems to do is have the team peaking at the right time.
Still, it is impossible not to see an opportunity when it comes. And with margins so small for the Orlando Magic as they try to return to the playoffs for a third straight season, the Magic have to strike early this year.
According to an analysis from ESPN, the Magic have the easiest schedule in the first half of the season. That includes facing only six back-to-backs — only three teams face fewer back to backs. They also face 10 opponents that will be on back to backs when they face the Magic, only three teams have more such instances. And some of those are instances where teams are playing a series against the Magic too.
The Magic’s schedule will still have its difficult stretches. Orlando’s first 10 games features four non-playoff teams. But two of them are the Washington Wizards, a team expected to take a step up into the playoff race. Two are against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The real gauntlet takes place from Jan. 8 until Jan. 22. The Orlando Magic play just one home game in the nine games they play in that span — and it is against the Milwaukee Bucks. It starts with a Texas road trip to face the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks before the team goes on its longest road trip of the first half of the season — a trip to play the Boston Celtics (twice), Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers.
By the midpoint of the first half of the season, the Magic will be able to take a breath on paper, at least.
Thus the folly of trying to map out the schedule before games are played or to count on “easy” stretches in the schedule is a bit bunk. The team is going to have to manage each game and focus on improving themselves each game.
But there is also no denying or avoiding the fact the second half of the season is going to be much tougher.
The Magic only play the Bucks once in their first 37 games. They avoid the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets entirely in the first half of the season. The Orlando Magic open with the Miami Heat, but three of their games against their intrastate rival are saved for the second half of the season.
The Magic play both of their games against the Thunder in the first 10 games of the season. They play two of their three games against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first half of the season — in fact, immediately after that difficult road trip in January.
Orlando hopes to be playing its best by the time the second half of the season comes around. The team very well might have to depending on how the schedule is constructed.
The way this schedule is set up the Magic have to get out to a faster start. It is not merely an aspiration, it is a requirement.
This team has a lot to prove. And it really should start from the beginning of the season. It almost has to.
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This is a new season though. Despite any feelings that the Orlando Magic were about to make a run in March or in July, the team has to piece itself back together. As Clifford likes to say, each team and each season is different. And the group has to find a way to overcome those challenges.
That was something the team struggled to do in 2020. More than anything, the Magic never found their footing. That was at least part of why the team did not reach all of its goals.
There is clearly a hunger to get back to that level they felt they were getting to as the season went on hold. There is clearly belief the Orlando Magic can get there again and be that team more permanently.
But the proof will be on the court. Despite all the continuity, the Magic are starting over again. Perhaps knowing exactly what did not work last year.
"“You can’t really carry over something that happened a year ago into the season,” Evan Fournier said in a teleconference Thursday. “I think we played faster. But not necessarily just running. We got to our sets faster. Body movement was better. We got to our spacing faster. Which allows guys like Markelle [Fultz] to drive. Once you get to your spot faster, you don’t have to get to your shot because you are already ready.“I think for us the key is going to be the pace because we are a really good team offensively when we have play calls. We all know what to do and we have a job. We struggle when it is open play and random basketball. That’s what we have to get better at and that’s what we did great during that run.”"
This was a sentiment Clifford shared throughout the season. He would often say the Magic would be able to run and execute their sets well, but it was that last playmaking touch needed when everything breaks down that this team is missing.
There might be another name for that — needing a star — and this absence becomes more prevalent in the playoffs when teams can sit on pet plays and tendencies more readily. The Magic may not have fully addressed that but a more confident Markelle Fultz and the acquisition of Cole Anthony might allow the Magic to fill this weakness.
But this remains an important piece for the Magic to put their disappointments in 2020 behind them.
Orlando has been outspoken and consistent in selling continuity as a reason to believe the team is about to take a leap and get out to the fast start that has eluded them.
"“I think it’s a positive thing that we have most everybody back,” Michael Carter-Williams said in a teleconference last week. “For the most part, we have pretty much everybody comig back. I think that says something for out organiation that they believe in us. I think we are going to be able to gel quickly jsut because we have all played together.”"
Whether the Magic will be able to do so is still a mystery. The team knows it has to get to work quickly.
And Orlando will certainly know early whether the team will be able to compete for a playoff spot. The team has to get off to a faster start.