Denton: A Performance Nobody Will Ever Forget

By John Denton
January 1, 2013


ORLANDO – Nikola Vucevic followed up Josh McRoberts’ missed shot with a tip try and controlled that miss by batting the ball from the right side of the rim to the left. Then, as he held the ball high above the others the way a playground bully might with smaller kids, Vucevic came up short on a layup attempt as Dwyane Wade and Mike Miller swatted at his arms.

Not to be denied, Vucevic tipped the ball again with his left hand, and this time the shot attempt went in, mercifully ending the volleyball-like, four-rebound possession for both the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat.

That moment in the Magic’s 112-110 overtime loss to the Heat on Monday symbolized the effort with which Orlando played with and the enormous potential that the 7-foot, 240-pound Vucevic possesses. That effort propelled the 22-year-old center to 29 rebounds, allowing him to break Shaquille O’Neal’s 19-year franchise record for rebounds in a game with 28.

Throughout Monday’s game, Vucevic’s teammates kept informing him of how many rebounds he had and they kept goading him to try and get 30 rebounds. He left the day with a franchise record, but he was more upset that Orlando didn’t get a victory. He saw some areas which Orlando can build from, starting Wednesday night when the Magic (12-19) host the Chicago Bulls (16-13) at the Amway Center.

``We came out aggressive and played hard and it showed that if we play like this we have a chance to beat everybody (in the NBA),’’ Vucevic said minutes after his record-setting performance. ``We almost beat the Miami Heat without some of our really important players. We were right there. And if we play hard like this all of the time we have a chance against anybody in this league.’’

Thirty-one games into this season, Vucevic has proven that he has a chance to soon be one of the NBA’s best all-around centers. By scoring a career-high 20 points on Monday, combined with the staggering 29 rebounds, Vucevic is now averaging the double-double (10.8 ppg. and 10.5 rpg.) that he dreamed possible back in the preseason.

Vucevic, who ranks seventh in the NBA in rebounding, is one of just 11 players in the NBA averaging double figures in both scoring and rebounding. That list also includes Dwight Howard, the franchise player that the Magic traded away in August. Vucevic was a part of that deal, coming to Orlando from Philadelphia, but overlooked by many who weren’t aware of his background and skill level. Vucevic knew that he was following in the footsteps of Howard, but he’s tried to forget about the pressure of living up to what the all-star center had accomplished in Orlando in the eight years prior.

``I’m not going to replace Dwight. He’s the best big man in the NBA,’’ Vucevic said. ``I knew that I couldn’t come in and replace him. I just had to try and play my game.’’

Vucevic’s game has been one that is active on the glass, solid shooting mid-range jumpers and steadily improving defensively and finishing around the rim. He’s led the team in rebounding 21 times, 18 of which have been double-digit efforts. Earlier in December, he had a streak of six straight games with at least 11 rebounds, but a mini-slump followed prompting a heart-to-heart conversation recently with head coach Jacque Vaughn.

``We talked about how the league is just as mentally grueling as it is physical and if you can convince yourself mentally sometimes you can push through physically. That’s the growth that I saw (against the Heat),’’ Vaughn said. ``The mental toughness that he showed, I’m extremely proud of Nik. In my young career as a coach, there have been some satisfying moments and to see him play like that and respond that way, it was pretty satisfying.’’

As solid and consistent as Vucevic has been on the boards, no one could have possibly seen an effort as dominant as the one that he had on Monday against the Heat. Vucevic had 11 rebounds in the second quarter as the Magic made their charge to get back into the game. He topped his previous career high of 17 early in the third period and his 20th rebound came just before the start of the fourth quarter. The four-rebound play that ended in a tipped-in basket came early in the fourth quarter and he finished regulation with 27 boards. He tied the record with the Magic up 106-105 and his final board gave the Magic possession and a chance to win the game. Orlando ultimately turned the ball over, but players and coaches on both sides raved about the work of Vucevic on the day.

Said Miami’s Chris Bosh: ``He is a big guy. He has been rebounding the ball pretty well. The ball movement was good and he was open on the backside a lot. He was getting tip-ins and once you work your way into a rhythm, you get some easy ones and they just start coming to you. He did a good job.’’

And then there was this from Miami coach Erik Spoelstra: ``He had a heck of a night. He’s a physical guy, but he’s skilled at the same time. That team has a bright future.’’ The immediate future for Vucevic is helping the Magic break a six-game losing streak against Chicago’s physical frontline of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng. But the long-term future for Vucevic includes an offseason of work in the weight room so that he can become even more physical on the low block and become an even better rebounder.

``I want to put on muscle in the offseason, but I’ve talked to the strength coach (Joe Rogowski) about it not being about me just getting heavy and slower,’’ Vucevic said. ``I want to keep my ability to have size and still be able to move. I want to be stronger and more explosive and not just focus on adding muscle and weight. I think that will make me even better next year because I’m still a young guy.’’

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