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Steve Clifford needs to acknowledge his mistakes and be better

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From keeping Markelle Fultz out too long, to not playing Mo Bamba enough, to benching Wes Iwundu, Steve Clifford’s rotations have become very puzzling

NBA: Orlando Magic at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Markelle Fultz took a seat on the bench with 3:53 remaining in the third quarter. He stayed there until 5:15 was left in the game.

What was a two-point Orlando deficit when he checked out had grown to 15 by the time he returned, and the Magic went on to lose 130-107 to the Blazers.

It was a curious decision by Steve Clifford, whose rotations seem to be getting more puzzling by the day. While Clifford blamed the loss on the Orlando defense, Magic Twitter blamed the loss on Clifford, who added to his growing list of recent inexplainable decisions that include the all-out benching of Wes Iwundu and the limited use of Mo Bamba, particularly on nights when he has clearly earned more minutes.

Clifford is often quick to place blame on his players, injecting the occasion subliminal dig at the front office for the mismatched roster that’s been assembled. While it’s true a chef can only work with the ingredients he has, is it not the chef’s fault if he fails to use the best combination of ingredients available to him?

“We are just picking and choosing when we want to play defense,” Clifford said after game. “For our roster, and I’m talking about before we got the injuries, it’s a team that would have to defend and rebound, we don’t have enough offense in our lineup. So the offense is better. But if we think we’re going to outscore people and make the playoffs or be a factor, we don’t understand who we are.”

Who they are is a team that probably will go no further than Game 5 of the first round of the playoffs, as they did last season. With Clifford playing Michael Carter-Williams over Fultz, and by starting Gary Clark and playing him 29 minutes compared to Iwundu’s three garbage time minutes, and by playing Bamba a grand total of 13 minutes, it shows that Clifford may not know who the Magic are. They are a team that should be utilizing its young talent and encouraging player development to see how they fit into the Magic’s long-term plans. Instead of focusing on that, Clifford exercises a blind loyalty toward players who have a limited or non-existent future in Orlando.

And this is not to say that had it not been for Fultz’s extended absence, the Magic would have prevented C.J. McCollum from scoring 41 points or the Blazers from orchestrating a fourth quarter run that put the game out of reach. Orlando’s problems go far beyond that. This is more an indictment of Clifford’s flawed rationale for sticking with Michael Carter-Williams over Fultz. After the game, Josh Robbins of The Athletic asked Clifford if he felt he held Fultz out too long.

“No, I don’t think so,” Clifford said. “Because we had MCW on McCollum, which was the big thing. He was the only guy up to that point who had even been able to control him even remotely. So it was matchup-based and again, it gave us the best chance to win.”

Problem is, McCollum was on the bench for the first 3:51 of the fourth quarter while MCW played alongside D.J. Augustin in the Magic backcourt. So if MCW really was this McCollum stopper, wouldn’t it be best for the Orlando defense to keep him fresh until McCollum was, you know, actually in the game?

By the time McCollum checked back in with 8:09 remaining, the Blazers had extended a four-point fourth quarter lead to nine over the MCW and Augustin-led Magic.

Plus, according to NBA.com’s interactive box score, in 6:32 matchup minutes against Evan Fournier, McCollum had nine points on on 4-for-7 shooting while the Blazers as a team scored 32 points. In 3:10 matchup minutes against MCW, McCollum totaled 10 points on 3-for-6 shooting as the Blazers totaled 23 points. Not exactly a McCollum-silencer.

To give the Magic defense this perceived “boost,” Clifford detracted from his offense by keeping Fultz on the bench for a stretch of 10:38 of gametime. With four minutes remaining in the third, Fultz had 10 assists and zero turnovers. Over the final 15:51 of the game, Fultz played a grand total of 2:03. By the time he checked in for the first time in the fourth with 5:15 remaining - along with Terrence Ross, who to that point was the Magic’s second leading scorer with 23 points - the game was out of reach, in part because of Clifford’s stubborn insistence to stick with the MCW-Augustin pairing.

Fultz finished with seven points and 10 assists over a grand total of 24 minutes (throigh three quarters posting a plus-5). Augustin played 23 minutes, posting a minus-20, while MCW played 22 minutes, posting a minus-16, with each shooting 1-for-7 from the field and combining for seven points. And yet, each got nearly the same playing time as the Magic’s 21-year-old (admittedly limited but still-developing) point guard.

It all makes as much sense as Iwundu, a flawed but useful player on an offensively-challenge Magic team, going from the starting lineup to the end of the bench with no explanation.

It’s as inexcusable as watching Mo Bamba recorded 15 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in 12 first half minutes against the Hawks last week, and then only playing him FIVE MINUTES in the second half. What message does that sent to a young player who will probably be here much longer than Clifford?

Steve Clifford knows more about basketball than any of us ever will, and he clearly believes that to be true based on the curt answers he gives the media when they occasionally second-guess him. Clifford has done some good things with the Magic, turning them into a strong defensive team that limits its fouls and turnovers. But like many of the Magic players, Clifford also has his flaws. He simply refuses to acknowledge them.

“We’ve gotten better offensively. We haven’t made strides defensively,” Clifford said. “We’re not good enough offensively to beat the best offensive teams trying to outscore them. And if we don’t start defending, its going to be hard, forget seventh, it’s going to be hard to make the playoffs.”

Especially if he’s not putting his best players on the court.