Dave Feschuk: Magic’s touch of ‘genius’ makes life tougher for Raptors

Dave Feschuk: Magic’s touch of ‘genius’ makes life tougher for Raptors
Let’s begin with a confession: Your alert correspondent was one of the savvy visionaries who picked the Raptors to beat the Magic in a sweep.

The Orlando Magic point to head coach Steve Clifford when talk turns to their late-season turnaround, and now one-game lead on the Raptors in the first round of the NBA playoffs.  (Doug McSchooler / AP)

Another was Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s forecast of a rested, load-managed Leonard possessing the potential to shift into “another gear.” And let’s face it: There were moments in Saturday’s Game 1 loss in which Leonard, who scored the Raptors’ final five points on a couple of wow-inducing jump shots, looked positively unstoppable. Who knows how high he would have revved had Nurse kept him in the game for more than an inexplicably light 33 minutes?

With that in mind, this is hardly a moment to bail on the prospect of a long Raptors playoff run. They should still win this series with room to spare; the talent disparity is just too considerable. The Magic don’t have an NBA alpha predator resembling Leonard, the 2014 NBA final MVP.

Still, if Toronto stumbles — if Kyle Lowry can’t find his jump shot again in Tuesday’s Game 2; if the Raptors’ acknowledgments of “miscommunication” suddenly turn into excuses about not playing enough together thanks to load management and injuries — Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has found a worthy adversary in his Magic counterpart, Steve Clifford.

The coaching matchup offers an interesting contrast. Nurse, though he spent the previous five seasons in Toronto as one of Dwane Casey’s assistants, is a rookie NBA head coach and a world-travelling journeyman who ran benches everywhere from the G League to the British league.

Clifford, in contrast, is an NBA lifer. He’s coached against the Raptors twice before in the playoffs, albeit as an assistant. He was on Jeff Van Gundy’s staff with the New York Knicks way back in the Vince Carter era. He was on Stan Van Gundy’s staff in Orlando when the Dwight Howard-era Magic beat the Chris Bosh-led Raptors in the playoffs a decade ago.

Both deserve credit for doing great work this season. Only Clifford, mind you, has been called a “genius” by one of his players in recent memory. Just last week Terrence Ross, the ex-Raptor shooting guard, proclaimed Clifford “a genius … probably the smartest coach that I’ve ever played for.”

Clifford, told of Ross’s assessment on Sunday, broke into a wide grin: “He called me a genius? I love him. You know what? The best guy I’ve ever coached.”

A sense of humour is essential to the gig, for sure. And maybe it speaks to the reason why Clifford, in an era in which the NBA’s three-point-shooting explosion has fuelled the popularization of an up-tempo, offence-first style of game, has been able to do something that isn’t easily achieved — specifically, sell his team on the merits of detail-focused, lockdown defence.

The seventh-seeded Magic, as hard as it is to believe, were a long way from a playoff spot less than a few months ago — struggling with a 20-31 record as January neared its close. But from Jan. 31 to the end of the regular season, they’ve boasted the best defensive rating in the league, reeling off a 22-9 record with wins over the Raptors, Milwaukee, Golden State and Boston. And Saturday suggested their stretch run of must-win games brought them to Toronto in prime form.

Magic point guard D.J. Augustin, as much as he humbly acknowledged the relative insignificance of winning one game in a best-of-seven series, admitted to revelling briefly in the glow of his winning shot.

“The funniest thing (on social media) was a little tag with me holding Kyle like a baby,” Augustin said. “But a lot of people don’t know, me and Kyle are good friends, man … It’s all competition.”

“From day one of training camp (Clifford) said the only way we’re going to win is defence — we have the talent to play great offence, but it’s going to come down to our defence,” said Augustin, another ex-Raptor.

If that doesn’t exactly sound like a sexy sales pitch in a shoot-first world, Clifford has found a way to get sufficient buy-in from his best players, including all-star seven-footer Nikola Vucevic.

“You know that when he talks, it’s not B.S. He really means it,” Vucevic said of Clifford. “You can ask any player on our team and they’re going to say the same thing. He’s really brought the best out of all of us. You enjoy playing for him. He’s a very fair coach. When he gets on you, he’ll say what he has to say and move on. And if you play great he’ll tell you as well. I think guys appreciate that.”

On Sunday, Clifford humbly gave credit to the smarts and talent and length of his personnel, pointing out that he was the same defensive-minded coach who was fired in Charlotte last spring after five seasons without a playoff-series win. But Clifford’s status as a branch of the Van Gundy coaching tree — an offshoot of the foundational Pat Riley oak — comes with certain non-negotiables. One is a belief that playoff preparation begins in Game 1 of the regular season, which can make for morning shootarounds that are longer and more information-heavy than has become the NBA norm.

“That’s the Van Gundy way — both Stan and Jeff, it was the same thing. We’re going to prepare for playoff games from Game 1 (of the regular season),” Clifford said. “I think it helps … For the players, sometimes it takes a little bit getting used to, because if they played for other places, we do cover more of the opponents’ plays.”

In this era of shorter attention spans, Clifford said he doesn’t go overboard.

“We do an hour, no matter what. I promise ’em, we’re gonna go an hour,” Clifford said.

And for Magic players whose minds drift during the info sessions?

“Coach Cliff, he holds everyone accountable. You’re not going to be on the floor if you don’t play D,” Augustin said. “He’s just been great with that, just teaching guys. And not over-practising us, but when we do practise we go over the right things. And it’s been working lately.”

Certainly it has. Which is not to say the Raptors don’t have the talent to make the Magic’s system stop working often enough to advance to round two. But the required four wins won’t come as easily as some geniuses expected.

Said Augustin: “We have nothing to lose. Nobody expected us to be here. And we’re trying to do everything we can to keep going.”
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