Magic coach Steve Clifford says his team needs to hear blistering critique in order to grow

Steve Clifford had a message for his team after Wednesday night’s sub-par performance against the Detroit Pistons.

He said finding a silver lining in mediocre play needs to stop. The Magic, in a nutshell, need to hear when they aren’t good and that’s the approach Clifford is going to take. He says for too long the weak team performances have been masked by individual accomplishments, and that’s no way for a team to win games.

“It doesn’t mean anything when you lose. It’s a team sport. You can’t play five guys and win. Everybody’s gotta be ready to play,” Clifford said. “One of the things that does have to change is that we have to have, all of us, expectations of playing well, instead of just saying, ‘This guy did this good,’ and all this stuff and the fans saying, ‘Good job.’ It’s not OK.

“This league is about winning in the playoffs. That’s one of our problems. The expectations are so much different than when I was here before. You know, if those guys didn’t play well, they heard about it, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Most specifically Wednesday night, Clifford was talking about how the starters came out and built a lead against the Pistons at the start of the game — a 15-point first quarter margin and an 11-point margin in the third quarter — only to see the reserves fumble the leads away.

He wasn’t finished.

“These guys need to hear about it, too, because they’re good enough to play better. And I need to hear about it, too, that’s all fine. That’s part of this,” Clifford said. “But to say, let’s find out what’s good? Let’s not. Let’s just tell the story. The bench was embarrassing, that’s it, all right.”

And with that, he got up and left the postgame press conference. Miffed would be a nice way to describe his demeanor.

But if we’re going by Clifford standards, we must call it as we saw it. He was raging mad. Although Clifford doesn’t really rage. He just makes his point very clearly.

The heavy criticism of the bench hit home with the players. Terrence Ross, who has been the Magic’s most energetic and integral player off the bench this season, took Clifford’s words to heart and he called a players-only meeting prior to Thursday’s practice — bench players only.

“Yeah, we talked this morning. I had all the guys come and talk this morning in the locker room before we got everything going, just to see what everyone’s feeling and what everyone thought needs to happen,” Ross said. “I feel like we’re on the same page, at least the bench group, myself included.

“We’ve got a better understanding of how we gotta approach the game and how we gotta stay ready.”

Dwight returns

Former Magic star Dwight Howard will make his first appearance in Orlando as a member of the Washington Wizards. The team was already in town Thursday and had its morning practice at Amway Center.

Howard was acquired by the Wizards after reaching a contract buyout settlement with the Brooklyn Nets, who had made a draft-day trade to obtain him from Charlotte for center Timofey Mozgov, who is now with the Magic. Howard signed as a free agent with the Wizards, but back soreness has slowed his acclimation to the team and he has played in just three games so far, averaging 13 points and eight rebounds.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said he is happy to have Howard on his team.

“He’s been terrific. We love him. … He brings enthusiasm and effort and we need that,” Brooks said. “He’s working himself into game shape. … It seems like every game he’s inching closer to where we need him to be.

“He’s coming in every day getting extra work. … He plays with a joy that I like to see. I like to see guys that play for the love of the game. It’s a game that we all grew up playing and you can never lose the sight of that it is a fun game. It’s a game that kids all across America play and the good thing about it is we get to still play it as adults.”

Clifford coached Howard for part of the time the eight-time all-star was in Orlando (2004-2012). Clifford was an assistant in Orlando to former head coach Stan Van Gundy (2007-2012).

“When he was young, athletically, he was just incredible,” Clifford said of Howard. “He’s worked so hard, and I know he’s been injured here [lately], but he’s taken such good care of himself. He trains hard, he’s done a good job with his back, I have a lot of respect for him.

“He wants to be able to play for a while.”

Orlando rookie Mohamed Bamba said he spoke with Howard shortly after being drafted by the Magic to get a few tips on living in Orlando and coming into the league as a first-year player.

“Dwight’s a really nice guy. I met him after I was drafted and he kinda gave me the ins and outs of the city and what he struggled with and what not to do,” Bamba said. “I really wasn’t expecting him to be so open, but he was great.

“He had nothing bad to say about the city and he told me that this was his home for the first eight or so years of his career and he enjoyed his time here.”

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