By John Denton Dec. 6, 2017
ORLANDO – Nikola Vucevic is completely comfortable with his somewhat geeky affinity for the ``Star Wars’’ series of movies, and he expressed that devotion on Wednesday by walking into the Amway Center wearing a black Darth Vader T-shirt, carrying a vintage sweatshirt from the original movie and sporting some mismatched Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader socks.
Later in the night, with his Magic engrossed in a tight, back-and-forth game with the rival Atlanta Hawks, Vucevic played as if ``the force was with him’’ in willing Orlando to a much-needed victory.
Vucevic made the key read and pass to point guard D.J. Augustin for a game-tying 3-pointer with 6.2 seconds left in regulation and he contributed several other key plays in overtime as the Magic gutted out a hard-fought 110-106 victory over Atlanta.
For the night, Vucevic had 22 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, four blocked shots, two steals and two 3-pointers for Orlando (11-15). His pass to Augustin helped the Magic get the game to overtime and his put-back basket of a Jonathon Simmons miss with 1:07 to play in the extra period all but sealed the victory.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising that Vucevic played well considering that the Magic designated the game as ``Star Wars Night’’ what with the opening of ``The Last Jedi’’ just a little more than a week away.
``He played a great game and he was affecting (Atlanta point guard) Dennis (Schroder’s) shot pretty much all night,’’ raved Magic teammate Aaron Gordon, who chipped in 24 points and 15 rebounds, about Vucevic’s play. ``He was blocking it, making (Schroder) think about it and doing a great job of holding the paint down. So, I’d like to see that Vooch every night.’’
Augustin, who played a key role in Orlando’s strong start to the season while playing big minutes at point guard, was a last-second substitution when the Magic took the ball out of bounds down three points with 14.7 seconds remaining in regulation. Magic coach Frank Vogel drew up a play for guard Evan Fournier (27 points), but when the guard was covered up, Vucevic wisely found Augustin, who buried the game-tying 3-pointer from straight on. Augustin, who finished nine points, was complimentary of Vucevic for making the right read on the play.
``I didn’t think it would come to me because the play wasn’t drawn up for me,’’ Augustin said. ``Coach (Vogel) told me to go into the game at the last minute and they played good defense on the play.
``Vooch just made the right play and he’s a very unselfish passer even though he can score the ball,’’ Augustin added. ``He knows how to play the game and we all need to play like Vooch – move the ball and find the open man – and not just at the end of the game.’’
With the Magic facing the rebuilding Hawks (5-19) and beginning a stretch packed with winnable home games, Vogel stressed to his team that if it was serious about making the playoffs that games like Wednesday’s could almost fall into the must-win category.
``If you’re going to make a playoff push, you’ve got to win games like this,’’ Vogel said bluntly prior to tipoff.
It was a struggle to win most of the night as the Magic squandered an early nine-point lead, slogged through a nine-turnover, 13-point second quarter and rallied from down eight points in the fourth quarter. Orlando was able to win because its defense played well for a third consecutive game, holding Atlanta to 43 percent shooting. Schroder finished with 26 points and seven assists, but he made just 10 of 26 shots largely because of Vucevic’s looming presence in the paint.
``Slowing down Schroder was a big point of emphasis and I was just trying to do my best there,’’ Vucevic said. ``On a couple of those blocks I got a bit beat and I was just trying to contest late and I was able to get the block. I just wanted to be in the right spots. A lot of times it’s not always about making the big block as it’s about being in the right spot and playing solid.’’
Orlando won for the third time in the past five games and improved to 6-5 at the Amway Center on the season. The game against Atlanta started a stretch where the Magic are playing four of five games at home – a period where they desperately need to rack up wins and potentially get back above .500. On Wednesday, the Magic found a way to win despite making just six of 28 shots and turning the ball over 17 times.
The victory came at a big price as Fournier suffered what appeared to be a serious ankle sprain early in overtime. After converting a floater in the lane, he landed on Vucevic’s foot, causing his ankle to grotesquely roll over. Fournier had to foul to get out of the game and he badly limped to the locker room.
X-rays proved negative, but the talented forward will almost assuredly get an MRI on Thursday to determine the full extent of the injury. His status for Friday’s home game against the Denver Nuggets is very much up in the air.
Said Vucevic: ``I just saw him and he said it’s hurting him. Hopefully it won’t keep him out too long. We obviously need him out there. He’s a big part of what we do.’’
In OT, Orlando trailed 101-100 with 1:37 to play when point guard Elfrid Payton (six points, six assists and five rebounds) picked off a pass and converted on the other end with a go-ahead dunk. After getting another defensive stop, Vucevic converted a missed shot to put the Magic back ahead 104-101. The two teams traded baskets before Augustin deftly converted a reverse layup in traffic to put the Magic comfortably ahead 108-103 with 15.5 seconds to play.
``D.J. is having a much better season this year than he did last year,’’ Vogel said. ``He’s just more comfortable in all ways. When we were down three, he’s a reliable 3-point shooter who can knock it down. If the ball finds him you know he’s going to knock it down and the ball found him.’’
Taurean Prince scored 19 points for the Hawks and reserve forward Tyler Cavanaugh added 13 points.
On the road much of the past four weeks – 10 of the past 14 games have been away from the Amway Center since Nov. 9 – the Magic started a stretch on Wednesday that will see them play four of the next five games at home. Orlando, which came into the game 5-5 at home, hosts the Denver Nuggets on Friday and plays the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers at the Amway Center next week.
``It’s definitely a game we felt we needed to win and we had to win,’’ Augustin said. ``Even though their record looks the way that it does, (the Hawks are) still a good team over there. We can’t play against their record. They played a good game tonight, but we’ve got to play great against whoever it is to win these kinds of games.’’
Down eight at the half following a disastrous second quarter, the Magic played with more fire in the third period and got the game tied at 67. However, more struggles in containing pick-and-roll plays with Schroder hurt them and allowed the Hawks to take a 79-74 edge into the final period.
However, Orlando was able to gut out the game in the fourth quarter and overtime, because of the many contributions of Vucevic. Five of his 16 rebounds came off the offensive glass and two of his four blocks came over the final 17 minutes of the game.
``That’s the game of basketball – just keeping making the right play over and over and the game becomes very easy and simple,’’ Vucevic said. ``When you make the simple play and don’t force things, it makes you hard to defend.
``For me, personally, I think that’s one of my best qualities – playing the right way and I’ve got to keep doing it,’’ the 7-footer added.
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