Steve Clifford challenges Magic to play more inspired basketball over final 13 games

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Roy Parry, Orlando Sentinel
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Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford acknowledged his team’s 13 remaining games likely will have little impact on the standings.

But, more importantly for the Magic, he said the games need to have meaning for his team.

Since reshaping their roster at the March 25 trade deadline, the Magic have gone 3-12. They’re 1-10 in their past 11 games as they’ve fallen to 14th in the Eastern Conference with the fourth-worst record in the league. Only the Pistons (18-42), Timberwolves (16-44) and Rockets (15-44) have worse records as of Friday.

That post-trade stretch of games started with a seven-point loss to the Trail Blazers on a night when the Magic had eight available players. Then came a three-point loss in Los Angeles to the Lakers, followed by road wins over the Clippers and Pelicans as the new group began to mesh.

Then came a 46-point loss in Utah that started a run of six straight losses, during which Orlando was outscored by an average of 22.7 points per game.

Since that loss, the Magic have struggled to string together stretches of consistent basketball, and Clifford has seen more unfocused efforts than he would like. In its past 11 games, Orlando averaged 104.2 points and had a defensive rating of 122.1 — worst in the league for that stretch.

Still, Clifford continues to stress to his team the importance and significance of playing well, regardless of what the standings say.

“This obviously is a different challenge, where basically in a lot of ways we’re playing younger guys in games that for the standings aren’t meaningful, but they need to be meaningful to us and they weren’t tonight,” he said after Thursday’s 135-100 drubbing at the hands of the Pelicans.

Clifford was a frustrated coach, calling the lopsided loss “one of those games,” even though he put little stock in the explanation. The Magic trailed by two after the first quarter, then were outscored 45-25 in the second quarter as the Pelicans pulled away.

Clifford’s biggest point of contention was player focus. In Thursday’s case, he said the focal point largely was on the wrong things. What his team should be striving to do, he said, is playing better as a whole and making individual improvements.

“We had guys out there worried about numbers, who actually on the stat sheet as I look at it, look OK and were terrible. Terrible. Not bad. Terrible,” Clifford said. “This whole thing is about getting better and making progress, and not about a guy that made one exciting play and was awful the rest of the game, because there were a bunch of those guys out there tonight. And it’s not OK. It’s not OK. Not if this is what we say it’s for, which is to develop good players. That’s what we’re going to do.

“Hopefully it’s one of those nights, if you believe in that stuff. Good NBA players don’t believe in that, but that’s what we’ll call it: one of those nights. But it’s not OK, and we have 13 times to try to make it better.”

Magic guard Chasson Randle, whom Clifford singled out for playing well Thursday, has only been with the team since February but he’s been around professional basketball long enough to understand how teams build accountability and make progress.

“It’s got to be every day, and we’ve got to do it through communicating, in practice, in the locker room, reiterating coach’s message, knowing the game plan and then spreading that throughout the locker room,” Randle said. “It’s got to be like a machine — repetition, repetition, repetition — with our talk, with our communication and with our execution. In practice, it’ll translate to the court.”

The Magic have 13 games to move in that direction, starting with Sunday’s matchup against Pacers. The contest tips off at 8 p.m. and will be broadcast on Bally Sports Florida.

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Roy Parry at rparry@orlandosentinel.com. Follow on Twitter @osroyparry