ORLANDO – Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford isn’t too proud to admit that much of what he knows about the NBA and coaching at the game’s highest level has come from what he calls “The Van Gundy School.’’
Clifford, now a 19-year veteran in the NBA, got his start in the NBA, first as an advanced scout and a year later as an assistant coach while working for the New York Knicks under the recommendation of the former head there, Jeff Van Gundy. Clifford then went to Houston with Van Gundy, serving under him as an assistant coach (2003-07). When that run ended, he was hired by Van Gundy’s younger brother, Stan, to be an assistant coach in Orlando, and he was a driving force on the Magic teams that reached the NBA Finals in 2009 and Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.
Coaches often say that their styles and strategies are a product of coaches that they played and worked for previously, and that’s certainly the case with Clifford. Many of his philosophies and tactics have been derived straight from the Van Gundys.
Now, with his Magic hoping to rebound from a lopsided loss in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors in tonight’s Game 3, Clifford has been asked repeatedly about the adjustments needed to be made to shift the series back in the favor of Orlando. For the answer to that, Clifford turned to something that Jeff Van Gundy used to utter during playoff series that he was involved with while coaching the Knicks and Rockets.
“Listen, Jeff used to say this all the time and it’s so true,’’ Clifford recalled. “People love to talk about adjustments, but the biggest adjustment in most playoff series is some guy who goes two-for-eight (in one game) goes five-for-eight (in the next game). It’s true. I’ve been in a ton of these (playoff series) and you want to try and do things better at both ends of the floor, but at the end of the day a lot of (making adjustments) gets vastly overplayed.’’
With the series shifting back to the Amway Center for tonight’s Game 3 (tip time: 7 p.m.; TV: Fox Sports Florida/ESPN), the Magic are excited about having a home court advantage while playing in front of a fan base that has been starved for success for years. That fanbase made a different late in the season when Orlando won its last nine home games and 13 of 14 since Jan. 31.
“Playing at home for us tonight will be an advantage and getting the crowd behind us, it could get us going as well,’’ Magic center Nikola Vucevic said. “We expect them to be loud. It’s been a while for them (to watch a playoff game in Orlando), so I’m sure they are excited. We’re excited as well to play in front of them. These fans deserve it, so we’re looking forward to it.’’
A couple of adjustments the Magic certainly would like to see when action tips off tonight at the Amway Center is Vucevic playing more like he did in the regular season and Orlando’s defense holding Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard somewhat in check like it did during three regular-season meetings.
Vucevic, an all-star for the first time in his eight-year NBA career after posting career highs in points (20.8), rebounds (12), assists (3.8) and double-doubles (60), has struggled to get going so far in the series. Part of the reason, Vucevic said, is his own lack of aggressiveness, and part of it is because of the length and tenacity of Toronto’s defense. When they aren’t trying to smother Vucevic with elite defenders Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors are sending sizeable double-teams the 7-footer’s way. In two games thus far, he’s averaged just 8.5 points on 28.6 percent shooting.
“There were some things that I had to figure out in the first two games and now I’ve just got to come out in Game 3 and be more aggressive and help the team more,’’ Vucevic said. “I’ve played (Gasol) a lot over the years, so we know each other pretty well. Gasol is a very smart player on both ends of the floor. Offensively, with him spacing the floor, it opens up a lot of space for them and it puts a lot of pressure on the defense, and defensively he’s a smart defender.’’
The Magic’s defense needs to be smarter in its coverages of Leonard, who has lived up to his superstar billing thus far by averaging 31 points on 62.5 percent shooting from the floor and 53.8 percent from 3-point range. Orlando defensive ace Aaron Gordon has been the primary defender on Leonard and Clifford wants his versatile forward to pick up his intensity and awareness when guarding the former NBA Finals MVP.
“He’s got to get into the ball more,’’ Clifford said with conviction. “He knows what he’s got to do; he’ll tell you he’s got to do better with that. That’s technique. There’s no screener so good that a defender as good as he is should get picked. So, he’s got to have good technique. He’s got to stay on his body, stay attached.’’
History suggests the team that wins Games 3 (when the series is tied 1-1) and 5 (when the series is tied 2-2) often holds a major advantage in winning the series overall. Magic guard Terrence Ross, a veteran of many playoff series during his time with the Raptors from 2012-17, knows there’s a distinct sense of urgency for tonight’s game.
“It does, it does (have more significance),’’ Ross said with conviction. “If we could get back out in front (in the series), it would help a lot. It lets us play from ahead.
“Every possession right now counts,’’ Ross added. “There’s a sense of urgency because you can’t give possessions away. We don’t want to be trailing later in the series, so now is the perfect time for us to play with purpose & try to get a victory.’’
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