Vucevic Looking For Ways To Get Going Offensively In This Series

by John Denton

ORLANDO – In the lead up to the playoff series that he has sought for years while a member of the Orlando Magic, center Nikola Vucevic contemplated all the joys that the last few months have brought him.

First, the 28-year-old Vucevic became a first-time father and then, two months later, he became a first-time NBA All-Star. Then, after posting career-high numbers across the board and easily being the Magic’s MVP for the season, Vucevic at long last willed Orlando into the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2012.

However, two games into the postseason that he worked so hard to reach, Vucevic’s dream-like run has hit a snag. Suddenly, a player known for his consistent approach and production – he’s been something of a ``Daily Double’’ for years what with his propensity for pouring in double-digit points and snagging double-digit rebounds – has encountered on-court struggles he never could have imagined.

Tied at 1-1 in the best-of-seven, first-round series, the seventh-seeded Magic have to be wondering if they have enough offensive firepower to topple the second-seeded and heavily favored Raptors if they can’t get Vucevic back to his regular-season form? Recent history says that could be difficult considering that Orlando is just 7-11 this season when Vucevic scores 15 or fewer points.

The hope, however, is that a return to the Amway Center and playing before a fanbase that has stood behind Orlando’s franchise fixture over the past seven years will help him rediscover the kind of productive play that he’s used to prop up the Magic for years.

``It’s tough right now, but he’s got to find ways to get himself going,’’ guard Terrence Ross said in a quiet Magic locker room after his team’s disappointing 111-82 loss to the Toronto Raptors in Tuesday’s Game 2. ``But he’s an all-star, we have confidence in him and he’s always going to be the guy that we go to. We know he’ll figure it out. We’ve got faith in him.’’

Vucevic’s teammates still have his back despite the 7-footer averaging just 8.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists while shooting a dismal 28.6 percent from the floor in two games – numbers that pale in comparison to the 20.8 points, 12 rebounds, 3.8 assists a game and 51.8 percent shooting that he compiled during 80 games of the regular season.

Vucevic’s forgettable three-of-14 shooting performance in Saturday’s Game 1 (while compiling 11 points, eight rebounds and three assists) was masked by the elation of the Magic winning 104-101 following a 3-pointer from point guard D.J. Augustin in the final seconds.

The cerebral and well-spoken Vucevic knew going into Game 2 that the Magic would likely struggle to keep up with a desperate Raptors team if he didn’t find a way to get himself going. However, that production came only in drips and drabs – he had more turnovers (four) than field goals (three) and finished with just six points, six rebounds and seven shot attempts – in a game where Orlando fell behind 11-0 in the opening minutes and trailed by as much as 34 in an unsightly second half.

Now, it’s on him, he said, to figure out how to better navigate Toronto’s long-armed double-team traps and find gaps in the defense on the perimeter. It’s something he’s done all throughout his NBA career while being the franchise’s cornerstone each of the past seven regular seasons.

``They did a good job taking away a lot of the stuff, a lot of my strengths, and I just have to figure it out a way to be more aggressive and be more efficient offensively,’’ Vucevic said. ``I didn’t take many shots either tonight, so I just have to find a way to get going offensively. I expected this, I expected them to have a big focus on me, so I just have to look at the tape and see what I can do better. We have two days now before we play, so we’ll figure out a way.’’

Much of the credit for Vucevic’s effectiveness being muted goes to Toronto’s long and physical defense and one that has often sent multiple defenders at the Magic big man. On one early possession on Tuesday, when Vucevic caught Pascal Siakam in a cross match, he looked to seal the 230-pound forward under the rim on a post move. However, just as Vucevic started his dribble, 255-pound center Marc Gasol came crashing down for a smothering double-team. Vucevic tried passing out of the double team, but his toss was deflected by Gasol’s towering reach and it resulted in a turnover.

In Game 1, Orlando made Toronto pay for committing so much attention to Vucevic – and Ross too, for that matter – by getting big nights from Augustin (25 points), Evan Fournier (16 points), Jonathan Isaac (10 points) and Michael Carter-Williams (10 points). When Toronto picked up the defensive pressure and overplayed the passing lanes on Tuesday, no such help ever came for Vucevic in the Game 2.

``We’ve got to help him, but to his defense, their defense is really focused on him,’’ Magic teammate Evan Fournier said of Vucevic. ``If a team wants to take a player away by staying with them all the time – like they’re doing – he’s just not going to have the ball as much. It’s on the rest of us to be aggressive and make the right play. Once the ball starts moving from side to side and we get him some touches in different spots, he’ll be all right. I’m not worried about Vooch.’’

Of particular concern, however, is the fact that Vucevic’s first basket on Saturday didn’t come until the game was more than 17 minutes old and his first field goal on Tuesday didn’t come until the game was 19 minutes old. His two starts to the second halves – two points in Saturday’s third quarter and four on Tuesday – have also been highly uncharacteristic for the Orlando big man.

Gasol, a former Defensive Player of the Year award winner, has given Vucevic fits for years with his combination of strength, length and anticipation. In Gasol’s 15 games against Vucevic while the center has played for the Magic, the Orlando big man has averaged just 14 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting.

``The sense of urgency was at a very high level and the whole team understood that,’’ Gasol said after Game 2, referring to his team’s defensive vigor. ``We did great job of executing the game plan from the get-go and played with good energy.’’

Said Toronto coach Nick Nurse of Gasol’s defense on Vucevic: ``A lot of that starts with Marc’s physicality and his IQ. The biggest thing he has to do – not just with Vucevic, but any really good post player – is try to push the catches out as far away from the basket, so they are starting from a point farther away and they are less comfortable. Then, the percentages obviously go down the further away you can keep him. I just think he’s played him real physical, he played him real smart and didn’t give him anything real easy. He did a great job on him.’’

Magic coach Steve Clifford, a veteran of 19 NBA seasons, has worked on coaching staffs of teams with great centers such as Patrick Ewing, Yao Ming and Dwight Howard, and double-teams in the post are nothing new to him. Those players, Clifford said, usually figured out ways to be effective and productive and leave a lasting imprint on big games.

For years, Clifford has pointed to the play of Howard in the Magic’s 2009 run to the NBA Finals as an example of a player figuring things out as a series progresses. Clifford was an assistant coach in Orlando from 2007-12 and he looked on in amazement as Howard had big performances in a Game 7 in Boston (12 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots) and a Game 6 against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers (40 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and one block) after struggling with double teams early in the series.

Without question, Howard and Vucevic are different types of athletes and players. Still, Clifford feels that Vucevic is too skilled and too smart to not figure out ways to make him imprint on the series going forward.

``Listen, my experience in series is like this is that the best players – and I believe he’s been our best player all year; he’s a very, very good player – there are just certain things they figure out as the series goes on,’’ Clifford insisted. ``Sometimes there are things you can help him with and sometimes they have to figure it out. He’s a bright guy and he’s a very good player and I think he’ll figure this out.

``But there have to be some adjustments, me again helping him, and then he’s going to have to find a way to get easy ones,’’ Clifford continued. ``Whether it’s running the floor more, being more active on the offensive glass, duck-ins, whatever it is, (Vucevic has to do it) so he can get the ball deeper.’’

The irony of it all for Vucevic, of course, is that after years of piling up gobs of gaudy statistics in losing seasons, he is now struggling in games of high importance. After six seasons of painful rebuilding that tested his will and patience, he finally has the Magic in the position that he wants. It’s up to him to make sure that the first playoff games he plays in at Orlando’s Amway Center are memorable ones.

``We did a good job of coming (to Toronto) and winning one game even though it stinks to lose this game by a big margin. But, at the end of the day, it’s still just one game,’’ Vucevic said late Tuesday. ``Now, we can go home, we have the advantage now and it’s on us to defend home court. We’ll have to play better than we did (in Game 2) and I think we will.

``(Playing at Amway Center) will be exciting and we’ll finally get to play a playoff game in front of our fans for the first time in a long, long time,’’ he added. ``It’s going to be fun and we’re looking forward to it. We have great fans who will get us fired up, but at the same time we’ll have to focus on our game and make sure that we do the right things. This is the playoffs and we have to play smart and execute. We have to focus on that and if we do that and get the fan support, it’ll be a fun night.’’

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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