Nikola Vucevic’s 3-Point Shooting Will Be Key in Playoff Series Against Bucks

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - While they will need Giannis Antetokounmpo to struggle from 3-point distance in their upcoming first round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Orlando Magic will need their own top scorer to consistently hit his shots from beyond the arc.

Nikola Vucevic’s 3-point shooting was erratic throughout the year. But when he was hot from the outside, the Magic were very tough to beat. In wins this season, Orlando’s 7-footer buried 40 percent of his 115 3-point attempts. In losses, he made just 29.9 percent of his 174 tries.

Like many other centers throughout the league today, Vucevic gradually extended his range. In his first five NBA seasons combined, he made just seven triples. It was in his sixth season when he started to take and make threes more frequently. In 2016-17, he knocked down 23 of them, 64 the year after that, 84 last season and this year, despite appearing in far fewer games because of an ankle injury that cost him 11 games and the pandemic-trimmed schedule, the 29-year-old sank a career-best 98 3-pointers.

The key for Vucevic and the rest of Orlando’s best perimeter shooters is to play inside-out. During the regular season, the Magic recorded the fifth most kickout passes that led to 3-point attempts, per Second Spectrum tracking data. One of the teams that had more were the Bucks, who ranked third in this category behind the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. The Toronto Raptors were fourth.

The Bucks were one of the opponents Vucevic didn’t shoot it well from downtown against this season. In his three games against Milwaukee, he made just five of his 20 tries from downtown (25 percent). However, that had nothing to do with him not getting good looks. Most of his attempts came from kickout passes, and many were wide open. In one of the games – Dec. 28 at Milwaukee – he was scorching from 3-point range, making five of his 10 attempts. The other two games combined he missed all 10 of his threes.

Interestingly, both Vucevic and his counterpart in this series, Brook Lopez, have struggled from deep when they have been matched up against each other in their careers. In those 20 games, Vucevic shot 25.6 percent from 3-point land and Lopez 25.0 percent, although Lopez did drill all five of his threes in their most recent meeting on Feb. 8 at Amway Center.

Unlike the case with Vucevic, the Bucks can have long-term success even if Lopez is off the mark. In Milwaukee’s wins this season, Lopez shot 31 percent from long distance and averaged 11.4 points, while in losses he shot 32.5 percent from deep and averaged 13.9 points.

As a team in last year’s playoffs against the Raptors, the Magic struggled to hit their 3-pointers. They made just 29.9 percent of them. Vucevic went 3-of-13, Evan Fournier 8-of-34 and Terrence Ross 12-of-35. Orlando hopes to use last year’s postseason experience as a tool to improve for this series.

“We can learn a lot from last year’s series,” Vucevic said. “Last year after winning game one, we were never able to then match up with Toronto’s intensity. They made adjustments and we didn’t really respond to those well. Hopefully this year if that happens we are able to react better and take what happened last year and learn from it and grow.”

Generating good looks from distance against Milwaukee’s stout defense is only going to happen if Orlando plays unselfishly. When the ball is moving crisply, the Magic tend to shoot well from long range. Considering the Bucks gave up more 3-pointers than any other team this season, there shouldn't be a shortage of opportunities.

“It’s all about making the right pass, playing for others,” said James Ennis III, the Magic’s key trade acquisition at the deadline in February. “We just have to stay confident. We work on our shots every day and we’re going to get a lot of open looks. If we’re hitting, it’s going to be scary. It’s going to be scary for Milwaukee.”

More important than how many threes the Magic make, though, is how few the Bucks make against them. Antetokounmpo shot just 16.4 percent from 3-point territory in Milwaukee’s losses, although there weren’t many of them, and 34.1 percent in victories. Eric Bledsoe is another player the Bucks rely on. He shot 20.9 percent from deep in losses, 37.8 percent in wins.

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