Evan Fournier Learning to Adjust Without Nikola Vucevic on Court With Him

By John Denton
Jan. 6, 2018

ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic suffered a huge loss when center Nikola Vucevic fractured a bone in his left hand and needed surgery that will likely keep him out until February.

Now, the loss of the team’s talented 7-foot center could be impacting the Magic in other ways.

Evan Fournier, Vucevic’s best friend on the Magic and a teammate for four seasons, came into Saturday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers mired in a shooting slump where he had made just six of 26 shots and had missed all nine of his 3-point attempts. Because Vucevic and Fournier often work so well together on the court, even speaking French at times to throw off the defense, the forward is undoubtedly missing the teammate with whom he has the best on-court and off-court chemistry.

``Definitely, we have great chemistry and there’s no secret to that,’’ said Fournier, who has had 26 of his baskets this season set up by Vucevic assists – second only to Elfrid Payton (33). ``No more two-man game with him out.’’

As injuries started to pile up, the Magic began running more of the offense through Vucevic, who head coach Frank Vogel has repeatedly lauded for his unselfishness and high basketball IQ. In addition to ranking first on the team in rebounds (9.3 rpg.) and third in scoring (17.4 ppg.), Vucevic has averaged a career-best 3.3 assists per game. Fournier, for one, is missing out on some of those passes.

``We miss him a lot and Vooch is a big key for us offensively,’’ Fournier said. ``He can pass and he can shoot. When you have center who can do both, it’s a big weapon. But Bismack (Biyombo) is doing a good job and he is bringing something different. But having both of them is definitely better than just one.’’

SUPER MARIO: Never one to lack for confidence, Magic forward Mario Hezonja promised that when he consistent minutes and build some rhythm back into his game that he would consistently produce some solid numbers. Possessing a firm spot in Orlando rotation since Dec. 9, Hezonja – who started on Saturday in place of the injured Jonathon Simmons – has been true to his word with some steady production.

In less than a month, the 6-foot-8 Hezonja has produced seven double-digit scoring nights, including a 28-point effort in Detroit on Dec. 17. He’s twice grabbed nine rebounds and he’s had multiple assists in five of those games. Hezonja came into Saturday having averaged 11.3 points on 46.4 percent shooting over his previous 10 games.

``It’s always been weird since my rookie year when I’d play 35 (minutes) and then I’d play seven (minutes),’’ Hezonja remarked. ``I’ve been asked many times if it is confidence, but it’s not confidence at all. It’s just that rhythm and it’s NBA rhythm. This is the NBA and guys prepare for you, so if you are off your rhythm it’s really hard. But with my consistent minutes now, I feel better and I’m helping the team better.’’

SIMMONS STILL HURTING: When Simmons was once again bothered by back spasms on Saturday, the Magic had to adjust their starting lineup again.

Opening the game with Aaron Gordon, Payton, Fournier, Hezonja and Biyombo made up the Magic’s 16th different starting lineup of the season for the Magic.

When the Magic defeated the Cavaliers on Oct. 21, they had a starting lineup of D.J. Augustin, Terrence Ross, Jonathan Issac, Fournier and Vucevic. Fournier was the only starter available to play on Saturday with Ross (sprained knee), Isaac (ankle soreness), Vucevic (fractured left hand) out with injuries and Augustin being used as a reserve.

Simmons, who has had a breakout season in his first year with the Magic, missed the second half of Wednesday’s loss to Houston with back pain. He was unable to practice on Thursday or Friday and was ruled out of Saturday’s game about an hour before tipoff.

LEBRON DILLEMA: When teams face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, they almost always ask themselves two questions: Do you single cover the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James and run the risk of him scoring points in bunches? Or do you double-team him, turning him into a passer where he can use his exceptional vision to find wide-open 3-point shooters?

Vogel has tried both throughout his coaching career. He said the key to having any success against James is constantly mixing up the coverages to try and keep his teams off balance.

``He breaks some of your rules. He’s such a powerful player that some of our normal switching rules that we would have in place aren’t in place with him and you’ve got to figure out the coverages,’’ Vogel said. ``And you’ve got to figure out how you want to make him try and beat you. He, obviously, likes to play with the pass and he’s also capable of going for 60 points. All of the defensive principles that we have must be in place.’’

James had a personal 18-game winning streak against the Magic coming into this season, but that ended on Oct. 21 when Orlando throttled the Cavs in Cleveland. James had 22 points, four rebounds and two assists that night, but the Cavs were a minus-31 on the scoreboard in his 31 minutes of the floor. That performance was an exception to the rule as he’s averaged 21.5 points, 8.2 assists and 6.9 rebounds in his last 19 games against the Magic.

The passing, Vogel said, is what truly sets James apart from others and has made him an all-time great.

``Maybe (Steve) Nash, Magic (Johnson) or (John) Stockton. But name a great passer in the history of the league and LeBron is right up there with the best ever,’’ Vogel said. ``Today, maybe Steph (Curry) and (Rajon) Rondo. I’d put him right up there with the best in the game.’’

UP NEXT: The Magic will hit the road on Monday for a three-game road trip. They will play in Dallas on Tuesday and Milwaukee on Wednesday in a difficult back-to-back set of games. It will be the first time this season that the Magic have played the Mavericks and the Bucks.

After a day off on Thursday, Orlando will face the Wizards in Washington, D.C. on Friday. Orlando was throttled 130-103 in Washington on Dec. 23 – a game that the Magic played without four starters because of injuries. Payton scored a career-best 30 points against the Wizards that night.

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