Vucevic Continues to be Magic's Stabilizing Force
ORLANDO – In a season dominated by the Orlando Magic’s erratic nature and inconsistent play – occasionally from game to game and sometimes even from quarter to quarter – center Nikola Vucevic has a pillar of stability for the franchise.
That, of course, is nothing new for the longest-tenured player on the Magic. This time around, however, Vucevic’s nightly brilliance is the driving reason why Orlando (33-38) is still in the Eastern Conference’s playoff race and why he now finds himself on the precipice of potentially joining some of the greatest players in Magic history.
First, the playoff push that has inspired Vucevic, who throttled the Atlanta Hawks for 27 points, 20 rebounds and three steals in Orlando’s 101-91 victory on Sunday. That win – sparked by the seventh 20-point/20-rebound game of Vucevic’s career – allowed the Magic to keep pace with the Miami Heat and remain within a game of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That position is light years away from the previous six seasons that Vucevic suffered through as Orlando failed to reach the playoffs.
``In past years, this time of year we’d already be planning our vacations, unfortunately,’’ said Vucevic, who is in his seventh season with the Magic. ``It’s much different now and much more fun. As a basketball player and a competitor, you want to be in this situation, fight for something, play for something and be in the big moments. So, it’s up to us to respond.’’
Vucevic, an all-star for the first time in his NBA career, has been responding all season to keep the Magic in the hunt. A night after posting his 52nddouble-double of the season, Vucevic’s season averages sit at 20.7 points and 12.1 rebounds per game – both career-best totals in those categories. If Vucevic can maintain that pace over the final 11 games of the season he would join legendary big men Shaquille O’Neal (twice) and Dwight Howard (four times) as the only players to average at least 20 points and 12 rebounds over a season for the Magic.
``Vooch has been killing it this year, for sure,’’ said Evan Fournier, Vucevic’s teammate of five seasons. ``He’s our anchor and he’s always the focal point. He’s been really efficient and that’s the most important thing. We expect a lot from him every night and need him every night. Basically, if we’re going to play well, he has to play well.’’
Raved teammate Jonathan Isaac: ``He’s a pro and he’s an all-star and that’s what he’s brought to us the entire year. That’s just the great player that he is.’’
Players don’t reach the kinds of lofty numbers over the NBA’s marathon-like regular season without playing at a high level on a nightly basis. The 28-year-old Vucevic has certainly done that this season, leading the team in scoring 32 times, in rebounding 58 times and even in assists 16 times. Those 52 double-doubles are tied for third in the NBA with Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, trailing only Detroit’s Andre Drummond (57) and Utah’s Rudy Gobert (55). Incredibly, the 7-footer has 277 double-doubles in his 527 NBA games, meaning he’s played more games with a doubles-double than he’s failed to reach those lofty marks.
``Being consistent in this league is huge with all the games that we have in such a short amount of time (for rest and preparation),’’ Vucevic said. ``Being able to sustain a certain level of play is important for individuals and teams. For us, that’s been the biggest issue. When play well, we’re very good and when we don’t, we struggle. But for me personally, (consistency) is something I take a lot of pride in, and throughout my career I feel like I’ve been able to show that when I’m out on the court, you know what you’re going to get from me.’’
Magic head coach Steve Clifford said Vucevic’s stability and smarts are two of the things that separate him from other big men in the league. Clifford likes much of the offense to run through Vucevic because of the big man’s vision as a passer and decision-making as a playmaker. As a result, he is also averaging a career-best 3.9 assists a game this season.
``The thing that Vooch does naturally – which separates him, in my opinion, from other centers – is when he has the ball we are organized because of his decision-making and understanding who he’s on the floor with and what they can do,’’ Clifford said. ``It’s invaluable to have anybody else on the floor who can do that other than your point guard, particularly a center who can play like that. In many ways, when he’s out there, it’s like playing with two point guards.’’
Vucevic’s rare abilities as a scorer, rebounder and playmaker have also allowed him to climb another incredibly lofty list in Magic history. In his Magic career, Vucevic has recorded 13 games where he’s had at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists – eight of which have come this season. The 13 25-10-5 games rank third all-time in Magic history, trailing only Tracy McGrady (29) and Shaquille O’Neal (15). Vucevic’s eight 25-10-5 games this season alone are more than Dwight Howard (six), Penny Hardaway (four) and Nick Anderson (four) had while wearing Magic pinstripes.
On Sunday, after Vucevic opened up the game with 13 straight points, scored 17 of the Magic’s first 19 points and finished off the franchise’s first 25-point/20-rebound night since 2014 (when he also accomplished the feat), the big man heard something usually only reserved for MVP-level players such as LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant or James Harden. Starting in the north end zone of the Amway Center, closest to where Vucevic was drilling the game-sealing free throws, began chants of ``M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!’’ that quickly filled the arena.
The chants meant plenty to a center who has mostly toiled in obscurity for years as the Magic have struggled to gain much national traction. Finally, all of Vucevic’s contributions on another big statistical night were factoring into winning and were being recognized by adoring fans.
``I have TV from Montenegro here, so I paid some of the fans to do that so I could look cool back home,’’ Vucevic joked, referring to his home country. ``It was awesome. To hear the fans say that, obviously it means a lot to me. It means they respect what I do, and they support me. So, it was great to hear and I’m glad I was able to help the team win.’’
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