BOSTON – Far more familiar with narrow defeats in winnable games than he’d ever want to admit, Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic delivered the kind of message to his teammates late Saturday that might end up being his best assist on an otherwise career night.
``Win or lose, you always have to learn, but I think we’re past the point where we can be OK with the learning part,’’ said Vucevic, whose Magic squandered two two-point leads in the final 90 seconds and lost 116-115 to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday. ``It’s time to turn things around and only be satisfied with winning.’’
There was zero satisfaction in losing in crushing fashion on Saturday for Vucevic, especially after he authored one of the best all-around performances in the 30-year history of the Magic to no avail. Not only did the 7-foot Vucevic compile the second triple-double of his career (27 points, 13 rebounds and a career-best 12 assists), but he also shot the ball nearly flawlessly (12 of 15 from the floor, four of four from 3-point range and three for three from the free throw line).
In the end, however, the longest-tenured member of the Magic – and someone who has gone through countless rebuilding plans over the previous six seasons – had to try and figure out just how they let another victory slip away. And just like in his other triple-double, which came last December in Atlanta when he compiled 31 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, Vucevic’s Magic were on the losing end again.
``It’s very disappointing because we showed fight and really competed, but down the stretch with things that we talked about, we made mistakes,’’ said Vucevic, whose Magic (2-1) had Sunday off before facing the Celtics (2-1) in Boston on Monday. ``You never know, but if we had taken care of those couple of things, maybe it would have been a different outcome. … We can be proud that we fought, but we can’t just be satisfied with that because the goal isn’t to play hard and have a close loss. It’s to win, and we didn’t do that. We have to improve on those little details that matter.’’
Magic coach Steve Clifford, who has brought a no-excuse, no-nonsense attitude with him to Orlando, agreed wholeheartedly with Vucevic in that there was little to be proud of on a night when the team squandered a winnable game.
``We played better and should have won the game, but we made two huge – huge! – defensive game plan mistakes late that we had defended the whole game,’’ Clifford said. ``You can’t make those mistakes and win on the road against a good team.
``So, whatever, we played better, but that’s not what this league is about,’’ Clifford added. ``That’s a game right there that was there to be won. There were plays to be made and you’ve got to make them.’’
Vucevic, a player Clifford has raved about for weeks and someone he recently named a tri-captain of the team, made plenty of plays on Saturday night in Philadelphia. Despite doing battle all game against superstar center Joel Embiid, Vucevic had a 12:2 assist-to-turnover ratio and was so efficient that the Magic were a plus-12 on the scoreboard in his 37 minutes on the floor. To put that into perspective, the playoff-tested Sixers (2-1) were a minus-eight in Embiid’s 34 minutes despite him dominating at times with 32 points, 10 rebounds and three 3-pointers. Afterward, many of the Magic’s players expressed frustration that they couldn’t do more to win so that Vucevic could truly savor his dazzling performance.
``Vooch was doing everything,’’ said guard Terrence Ross, who missed a 3-point shot in the final seconds that could have won the game. ``That’s what he does. He is very versatile, he’s a great utility player and he can score, he can rebound, pass and defend. He was such a big part of us getting back into the game.’’
Added Magic guard Evan Fournier, who had 31 points and six 3-pointers: ``When we play that lineup, Vooch is basically the second point guard because he’s right in the middle of the floor and he really sees people. The ball goes through him all the time and he’s a very unselfish player and he makes pretty much the right play every time.’’
Vucevic could have been a big part of the Magic (1-2) winning it if not for some critical errors down the stretch. With Orlando up 114-113, Aaron Gordon bobbled a pass and had his shot blocked with 31.3 seconds to play. Then, when Ross couldn’t get back over a screen for a shot contest, J.J. Redick got a clean look at his eighth 3-pointer of the game – one that gave Philly a two-point lead with 17.7 ticks remaining. A member of the Magic for seven seasons, Vucevic is the only remaining player who teamed with Redick in Orlando back during the 2012-13 season.
``J.J. has so much experience and he was really good when he played for us,’’ Vucevic said of the 13-year veteran who burned the Magic for 31 points. ``He made the game for me so easy. I’d set pin-down (screens) for him and he’d come flying off and either he’d be wide open or he’d throw a little pocket pass to me. My first year in Orlando, I honestly think 60 to 70 percent of my points came from J.J. and he made it so easy. He’s such a great player for a team because he sticks to what he does best.’’
Down the stretch, Magic forward Aaron Gordon missed a chance to tie the game when he converted just one of two free throws with 10.3 seconds to play. However, Vucevic was there to assist again and was able to tie up Robert Covington for a jump ball. Vucevic wisely tapped the jump ball to teammate Evan Fournier. Following a timeout, Orlando wanted to get the ball inbounds to Vucevic at the mid-post area and let him go to work, but forward Jonathan Isaac instead inbounded it to Ross, who couldn’t connect from 25 feet.
When Ross’ shot was offline, it meant that Vucevic once again had little to show for an otherwise spectacular night individually. He’s all too familiar with piling up big numbers in games that end up as Magic losses – a trend he desperately wants to reverse. More than anyone on the Magic, Vucevic wants to see the Magic get over the hump and wins games like Saturday’s when he piles up big numbers.
``If we’re winning all of these years that I was here and all of the numbers that I had been putting up, I’m sure I’d be talked about in a higher way because I’d have the winning to back it all up,’’ said Vucevic, who still holds the Magic record for rebounds in a game with 29 – a mark he set early in the 2012-13 season. ``Winning just changes everything for the better. Hopefully, this can be a year that we win more and we do turn things around. All of the individual stuff would mean much, much more when you win than when you lose.’’
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