Vucevic Playing With Terrific Confidence in Recent Games

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By John Denton

Dec. 22, 2015

ORLANDO – Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic was born in Switzerland and raised in various parts of Europe, but he understands the American concept of collegiate rivalries quite well.

Asked late Monday about the manner in which he dominated matchups against Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez (18 points against him) and New York’s Robin Lopez (26 points against him) in a matter of a week, Vucevic gave it the old college try with his explanation.

``Well, they went to Stanford and I went to USC,’’ Vucevic said with a laugh, referring to the rivalry the two schools had when he played in the Pac-10 (now the Pac-12).

Vucevic could afford to chuckle considering the way he took the game over on Monday in New York and was a one-man wrecking crew as the Magic beat the Knicks 107-99 at Madison Square Garden. Vucevic didn’t just score a game-high 26 points, but he did it in jaw-dropping fashion: He made 10 of his first 14 shots and finished the game 13 of 19 from the floor.

Orlando (16-12) has one of the NBA’s most balanced teams when it comes to the offensive end of the floor, what with five players averaging in double figures. Vucevic (16.5 ppg.) leads the team in scoring and on nights like Monday he shows his abilities as a go-to scorer and someone who can carry a team across his broad shoulders with his wide array of offensive weapons.

When Lopez – Robin in this instance – didn’t come out on him, Vucevic knocked down one mid-range jump after another. When Lopez crowded up on him, Vucevic twice drove hard to the rim and finished with layups. And late in the night, as Lopez was being physical with him and the Knicks were getting close to the lead, the Magic big man flipped in a series of hook shots to seal the victory.

``It gives you confidence when you know that your teammates believe in you,’’ Vucevic said. ``And once you score and see their reaction, they get all hyped. It means a lot to every player to see that. I know the work that I put in every day and I come into every game believing in what I do. And when you add to that the belief of your teammates, it only boosts your confidence up even more.’’

Vucevic will need to keep up his strong play considering that the Magic will be facing Houston’s Dwight Howard (Wednesday), Miami’s Hassan Whiteside (Saturday), New Orleans’ Anthony Davis (Monday) and Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez again (Dec. 30) in the four-game home stand ahead.

``We’re not going to stop going to him anytime soon, especially when he has it going like he did (Monday),’’ said Magic coach Scott Skiles, who has been impressed with his center’s offensive arsenal this season. ``He’s having a good year. He’s talented – he can play with his back to the basket, he can face up and he’s been good for us defensively. Our players are looking for him out there because he’s an all-around, high-level offensive player out there.’’

A closer look at Vucevic’s shot selection shows that he has been a model of consistency this season for the Magic. Around the basket, he’s made 63 percent of his shots. From 15-to-19 feet, Vucevic has drilled 47 of 95 tries (49.5 percent). Only Marc Gasol (54.4 percent) and Al Horford (51.1 percent) have shot the ball better from mid-range distances from the center position.

Turn-around jumpers (61.5 percent) and turn-around hooks (60.9 percent) have been good shots for Orlando’s big man. Why, he’s even made 50 percent of his tip shots (11 of 22) even though he’s often in traffic and battling other big men just to get the ball up to the rim.

``We always want to keep feeding him because we know he’s always going to get a good shot – either in the paint or off a nice face-up J,’’ Magic power forward Channing Frye said. ``Nik’s been playing very unselfish this year. When he’s getting double-teamed he’s passing the rock. And when they don’t double team him we’re able to feature him and go to him.’’

Vucevic has been so efficient in December he could be on the verge of doing something only Shaquille O’Neal – who was announced as a Hall of Fame candidate on Monday – has done in a Magic uniform. O’Neal, who played for the Magic from 1992-96, is the only player in franchise history to average at least 17 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists for an entire month – something that O’Neal accomplished four times.

Following Monday’s stellar performance, Vucevic is averaging 18.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists in December. Vucevic ended a string of nine straight multi-assist games in last Friday’s defeat of Portland. He had four assists in wins against Charlotte and Brooklyn and another time early in December against Minnesota. Four other times in December Vucevic dished out three assists in a game.

``We feel like he’s been better than last year all year,’’ Skiles said of Vucevic, who is averaging a career-best 2.5 assists a game. ``He’s made some really good decisions to the point of even being on one block (of the lane) and throwing the ball to the opposite corner. … We value him as a playmaker right now.’’

Part of the beauty of Vucevic’s offensive game is that because he is so fluid he can react on the fly and adjust his shot. Not only does the defender not know what Vucevic is going to do; he doesn’t either. That was the case with the hook shot that Vucevic made over Robin Lopez on Monday night after the Knicks had gotten to within 93-92 of the Magic.

``I don’t really go into a move thinking what I’m going to do exactly; I just read what the defense gives me,’’ Vucevic said. ``I took (Lopez) middle and then I was able to come back to my right hand. That’s a shot I work on every day with a lot of reps. When you do that you feel comfortable shooting that shot in games.’’