Vucevic Looking to Break Out of Shooting Slump

by John Denton

ORLANDO – A couple of choppy, disjoined possessions from Friday’s first half at the Amway Center just might lend some insight into the puzzling struggles of Orlando Magic all-star center Nikola Vucevic of late.

On the first, Vucevic got a good piece of Boston guard Javonte Green on a back cut by Markelle Fultz, rolled hard to the rim and appeared ready for the ball so that he could go to work against his 6-foot-4 counterpart. Instead, Fultz kept the ball, easily maneuvered around 7-footer Vincent Poirier and converted a nifty reverse layup.

Later, on a more conventional high screen-and-roll play design, Fultz left a tad early, meaning that Vucevic mostly whiffed on Boston’s Kemba Walker. This time, when Vucevic didn’t necessarily expect the pass, he instead got it and uncharacteristically looked tentative. He turned down a floater from 14 feet, but as he made his move to the rim, he inadvertently shuffled his feet and was called for travelling.

Those were just two possessions in a night full of them for a Magic squad that lost an early 16-point advantage largely because of their offensive struggles over the second half of a 109-98 loss to the Celtics. On a night when Orlando needed all the points it could muster as Boston’s Walker poured in 37, it scored just 41 in the second half and hit only 32.6 percent of its shot attempts.

At the heart of the woes was the uncharacteristically spotty play of Vucevic, Orlando’s unquestioned leader much of the past eight seasons with his steadiness on the inside. He made only six of 18 shots against the physical, long-armed defense of Boston’s Daniel Theis and didn’t fare much better when he ventured out to the 3-point line (two of seven).

``I have to figure it out,’’ said Vucevic, who hopes to break out of a mini-slump on Sunday when the Magic (21-25) host the deep and talented Los Angeles Clippers (32-14) at 6 p.m. ``All season long my offense and my shooting have been a little bit up and down, I haven’t been as efficient as I’ve been my whole career and I have to figure it out. I have to work through it, fight through it and that’s all I can do. It’s frustrating because if I was more efficient in some games, we’d have had a much better chance if I make some of the looks that I had. I just have to figure it out.’’

The 7-footer will try and figure it out against a Clippers team that has won seven of its last 10 after it beat the Miami Heat on Friday in South Florida. After playing the Clippers – a team that Orlando has lost to 12 straight times since January of 2013 – it will be in South Florida on Monday to face the rival Heat.

Vucevic’s offensive struggles on Friday were made even more glaring by the shooting woes of his teammates. Evan Fournier was terrific throughout with 30 points and five 3-pointers, but he had little help from Terrence Ross (three-of-14 shooting), Aaron Gordon (four-of-11 shooting) and Fultz (three-of-10 shooting). Five of Vucevic’s misses came from beyond the 3-point line, six misfires were from in the paint where’s usually automatic with either hand and a 12thmiss came on the kind of shot – an 18-foot jumper – that Vucevic has tried to eliminate from his offensive arsenal in the analytics-driven basketball world of taking only 3-pointers or high-percentage twos.

To contrast the difference that a year makes, all you have to do is look at how Vucevic demolished the Celtics a year ago as the Magic swept the season series, 3-0. In those three wins over the Celtics, Vucevic poured in 21.7 points and grabbed 12.3 rebounds while making nearly 52 percent of his shots. On Friday, little to nothing came easy for the Magic big man who has averaged 19 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists over 35 games of this season.

``(Assistant coach) Mike (Batiste) has been watching a ton of film with him. He’s shot the three well and his playmaking has been good, but he hasn’t played with the same, to me, offensive force, physicality and aggressiveness that he needs to score,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said after Friday’s game.

``That’s a game (on Friday) where if we’re going to be able to beat (the Celtics) – which we’re obviously capable of – last year, they had to double team (Vucevic),’’ Clifford continued. ``He’s getting the ball in good places. The shots that he’s getting are good, he’s getting a lot of shots and enough to be in rhythm. Sometimes, you just have to figure some things out, and that’s where we’re at.

``It’s going to be hard to beat anybody … (with Vucevic struggling),’’ Clifford added. ``I mean, (Wednesday against Oklahoma City), he was 10 for 20 (shooting), but it was the same thing – he’s getting great shots and we need those points.’’

To his credit, Vucevic isn’t running away from his responsibility of being the Magic’s best player. Even though Fournier leads the squad in scoring at 19.2 points per night, Vucevic’s versatile talents and strong decision-making usually sets up so much of what the Magic do on the offensive end.

This time last year, Vucevic was strengthening his case to make the NBA All-Star Game, which he did for the first time in his career. In addition to becoming a father for the first time and becoming an all-star last year, Vucevic averaged career highs across the board to lead Orlando into the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Vucevic, 29, might even be a victim now of last season’s success with teams guarding him differently than they did last season when he posted career highs in scoring (20.8), rebounding (12.0), assists (3.8), 3-pointers made (84) and free throws made (179).

This season, however, has been much rockier for Vucevic and the Magic largely because of a relentless rash of injuries that continues to befuddle them. (Vucevic missed 11 games from Nov. 23-Dec. 13 with a right ankle sprain just as he was starting to play his best basketball of the season.) Orlando is fully aware that forwards Jonathan Isaac (sprained left knee and a bone bruise) and Al-Farouq Aminu (right knee surgery) likely won’t play again this season. Of late, an injury to veteran point guard D.J. Augustin (bone irritation in his left knee) has hit the team equally hard. Augustin’s absence also might explain some of the struggles that Vucevic has experienced of late.

Vucevic’s shooting percentage this season (44.7 percent) pales in comparison to last season (51.8 percent). That could be because he’s shooting far more 3-point shots this season (4.8 attempts a night) as opposed to last season (2.9 3-point attempts a game). This season, 28.9 percent of Vucevic’s shot attempts are coming from 3-point range – far and away the largest percentage in his nine-year NBA career.

``Yeah, they definitely are (defending him differently), but it was a little different last year because I was playing with D.J. and getting a lot of those pick-and-rolls and we had a really good chemistry,’’ Vucevic said. ``Part of it (this season), with Markelle still trying to figure it out, I am popping more and shooting more threes. So, maybe I should get back to the roll, try to get more stuff inside to get going and try to find ways to score in different ways.

``There have been games where I didn’t make anything the whole game and then at the end I’d come through,’’ Vucevic continued. ``(On Friday), I didn’t, so it’s just about me figuring it out, scoring, being efficient and being good to go.’’

To further the point about how much Vucevic misses the veteran savvy and playmaking of Augustin, consider this: Last season, Augustin assisted on 26.1 percent of Vucevic’s baskets (183 of 701) and this season that number is down to just 15.6 percent (41 of 262). This season, Vucevic is shooting 48.5 percent overall and 46 percent from 3-point range off passes from Augustin as opposed to just 40.6 percent overall and 35.3 percent from 3-point range off passes from the 21-year-old Fultz, according to Second Spectrum Sports. It isn’t that Fultz has played poorly in any manner, but he’s yet to build the same sort of chemistry with the 7-foot center as Augustin had last season.

Vucevic knows that, in their compromised state because of injuries, the Magic need his scoring and playmaking more than ever if they are going to beat the talented teams dead ahead on the schedule (Clippers on Sunday and Heat on Monday) and stay afloat in the tenuous time just before the break for the NBA All-Star Game.

Saturday was an optional practice day for the Magic, and Vucevic was planning to spend a major chunk of his day at the team’s headquarters working on his shot, reviewing film and talking with coaches about ways he can be more effective for a Magic team that desperately needs his offensive production.

``I got really good looks – inside and outside – looks that throughout my whole career I’ve been making, and I didn’t (on Friday),’’ Vucevic said. ``It’s very frustrating. You get those looks, you want to knock them down because your team relies on you. It’s part of it and I have to fight through it. Maybe I just have to take my time or not think as much and let it go. I have to watch film and see what’s going on.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.


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