The Orlando Magic should be happy. They’re leaving Toronto with the series tied at 1-1 in their first playoff series since 2012, when Stan Van Gundy was the head coach and Dwight Howard was the star player.
In the now, the Magic are still built around a defensive-minded head coach in Steve Clifford, and their franchise player is Nikola Vucevic, a center who made it to his All-Star Game this year.
Orlando proved they belonged in the playoffs after stunning Toronto in Game 1. The likes of DJ Augustin and Evan Fournier outdueled Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Pascal Siakam. Augustin scored the final five points for the Magic, including a game-winning 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds remaining.
Game 2 is less of a story. The Raptors trounced Orlando, leading from beginning to end. Leonard was in MVP form, Lowry bounced back from a Game 1 performance in which he scored zero points in 34 minutes, and Siakim had a double-double. Toronto won by 29.
Production for the Magic has been sporadic in the first two games of the playoffs. In Game 1, seven Magic players scored ten or more points. In Game 2, just three players did so. Consistent scoring for the Magic has been a problem all season, outside of Vucevic.
All season the Magic were led by Vucevic, who paced the team with 20.8 points, 12 rebounds, and 3.8 assists, all career highs. He shot an efficient 51.8/36.4/78.9 percent from the field, 3-point line, and free throw line.
But in the playoffs, he has disappeared. Through two games he is averaging 8.5 points, seven rebounds, and 2.5 turnovers per game. He’s a minus-19 through the first two games. The unexpected struggles of Vucevic will kill the Magic’s hopes of competing further in this series, as the team needs the player that made their offense go in the regular season.
Toronto has done an excellent job defending Vucevic, with Marc Gasol spearheading the operation. The beginning of the task can be re-winded back to April 1st. It was the first meeting between Vucevic and a Raptors frontcourt reinforced with Gasol. The All-Star was neutralized, scoring 13 points on 35.7 percent shooting from the field. He was a minus-13 in the loss. With Gasol as his primary defender, Vucevic recorded just one made basket in the loss. Only three other Magic scored in double figures.
In three games against the Raptors prior to the trade for Marc Gasol, Vucevic had averaged 20 points per game. Gasol has simply shut him down.
In this clip, Vucevic is hounded by Gasol far out on the baseline. He wants to go towards the middle and as he does so, Gasol keeps a hand on him, leaning his body into him. Then when Vucevic goes to shoot, Gasol has his hand up right in his face to contest the shot. Between the body contact and the contest, Vucevic misses wildly, and the Raptors go on offense.
Vucevic’s turnovers have been a problem, as well. In this clip, with space to move into the paint, Vucevic decides to make an awkward pass out to Fournier, but did not see Leonard tracking back to the wing. Leonard steals it and scores.
Even when Vucevic was able to get positioning down low, he had a tough time. Toronto constantly threw more than one defender at him, trying to limit the lumbering big man when he got the ball on a post up situation or deep into the post.
The Raptors are defending Vucevic with multiple defenders thrashing towards him whenever he gets the ball inside. They’re getting up in his grill and forcing him to get rid of the ball, which has sometimes ended in a completed pass, but far too often resulted in a turnover. They have found a way to mitigate his impact on the game, something other teams could not do during the regular season.
Bottom line, the Magic need an assertive Vucuve moving forward. Whether it be his ability to score the ball from inside or outside, distributing the ball, or doing anything he can to not become an afterthought on the court, Orlando needs him. How he has played in the first two games is a worst-case scenario. He really can only play better. Yet the Magic have the series tied at one heading home. They aren’t in a bad spot, but if Vucevic can’t turn it up and make a greater impact, then the talent disparity will play itself out sooner rather than later and the Raptors will finish the series quickly.
Vuvevic is capable of so much more. There is a reason as to why he was named an All-Star this season. He dragged the Magic through games at times, a tall task with the inconsistent production throughout Orlando’s roster. Disappearing in this series could also have greater implications than just losing the series.
He is an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, and prior to the playoffs, expectations were that many teams would be interested in signing him to a lofty contract. But if he shows he is unable to perform at the biggest stage of the game, will thay scare teams away? Sure, he will still have suitors, but they may offer him a less expensive contract or a short term deal to see if the series was just a fluke or if he is invisible in the postseason again.
Either way, Vucevic does not want to go down that path, and the expectation is that he shouldn’t. He has been a very good player all season. The positive to take from his first two games is that the only way to go is up for him. He can’t play worse. If he goes for 20 points, dishes out four asissts, and rebounds well, it’s hard to envision the Magic not competing in the game.
Being able to steal one on the road against one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, the Orlando Magic should be very happy with the position they are in as they head home for games three and four. Now, if Vucevic is able to be the reliable engine of the offense as he was during the regular season, the Magic may be able to cause some serious havoc in the postseason.