Kim Klement/USA TODAY
It is not often you see Nikola Vucevic show much emotion on the basketball floor. Off the court, he is usually a bit quiet and reserved, speaking softly and calmly.
That was not the Nikola Vucevic we saw on the floor Wednesday night for the Magic.
This Nikola Vucevic was ripping down rebounds and putting on physical box outs of DeAndre Jordan, trying and succeeding at keeping the Clippers big men away from the rim. This Nikola Vucevic was posting up and and spinning circles around his defenders, going up and under for scoop shots and stepping back on the pick and roll for 15-foot jumpers. This Nikola Vucevic was demanding coach Jacque Vaughn give him the ball at the end of a close game.
This Nikola Vucevic was a monster, in his coach's own words, finishing the game off with gusto by draining 16-foot jumper with 64 seconds left off of a Jameer Nelson pick and roll and then sealing the game with two rebounds, six free throws and a blocked shot in the final 30 seconds of play. That helped him to 30 points and 21 rebounds, his fifth career 20/20 game and second 30/20 game of his short career.
The Magic may have lost what was once a 19-point lead, but they finished strong for a 98-90 win over the Clippers at Amway Center to climb above .500 for the first time in a year (exactly a year when they were 2-1 following a loss to the Timberwolves).
"I'm just playing with a lot of confidence right now," Vucevic said. "I know my team needs me to be aggressive. The coaching staff keeps telling me to be aggressive on both ends of the court. I'm just trying to deliver for my team so we can get some wins."
The Magic once again won this game with their defense.
For the third straight game, Orlando held its opponent to worse than 40 percent shooting. The Clippers, an offensive juggernaut leading the league in 3-point shooting and offensive efficiency, made only 37.9 percent of their shots and 3 for 19 of their 3-pointers. Chris Paul had half of the team's 20 assists as Orlando tried to keep him out of the paint or leave only Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan on the perimeter as outlets on the pick and roll.
The defensive strategy worked for the most part. Blake Grifin scored 23 points on 10-for-20 shooting, but was largely on the perimeter for most of the game. Many of his shots came outside the paint, especially at the elbow area. It seemed Orlando was OK giving up this shot.
The Magic ran into problems in the third quarter when a 29-5 run gave the Clippers a five-point lead. In that span, the Magic committed five turnovers and missed eight of their nine shots and three 3-pointers. The Clippers took that opportunity to get out on the break for 11 fast break points, eight points coming off seven turnovers.
This is decidedly what the Magic could not allow to happen against the high-scoring Clippers team that thrives in the open court.
After that 32-point outburst from the Clippers, the Magic buckled back down defensively and continued to grind for a victory. The Magic refocused on its defensive keys: limiting transition buckets and forcing the Clippers to play in the half court and contest shots, forcing the Clippers to shoot the shots the Magic wanted.
That is not easy to ask of a young team. Particularly after losing a lead.
Several players admitted or suggested that this may not have been a game that the team would have won last year. The added experience of even just a year together helped them pull together. Arron Afflalo said that when things were falling apart in the third quarter, the team did not point fingers or talk much to each other. They circled the wagons and did what they had to do to exit the mini-slump of the third quarter.
Vaughn said trust was a big part of the Magic holding off the Clippers. This is a team that has built a lot of trust in each other to be in the right spot and cover for each other throughout the past year.
It paid off as the Magic made big play after big play down the stretch.
"I think it's more important that we took the blow that they gave us," Jameer Nelson said. "They came out in the third and pretty much had their way. Basketball is a game of runs. They made their run and we took the blwo. We executed well and stuck to our gameplan. Even when they executed against our gameplan and were successful, we stuck with it and did what we were supposed to do."
Vucevic was, no doubt, the star. He took a couple passes from Nelson that set him up near the basket or for his 15-foot jumper. E'Twaun Moore also played a major role, scoring 12 points including a 3-pointer with five and a half minutes left that put the Magic up four and served as a clear signal the Magic were not going away.
What was so startling was the relative easy with which the Magic scored. Orlando was able to set Vucevic up in the post or get into the paint relatively easily. The Clippers were not playing particularly good defense. Orlando made 48.8 percent of its shots and scored more than 25 points in three quarters, including a 26-16 advantage in the final 12 minutes.
It may not have been a case of the Clippers trying to "turn it on," as the Magic had a solid game plan to combat the Clippers. And the Magic really stuck to that gameplan to a tee.
Jacque Vaughn said the team has been working on its execution and that practice paid off. He was impressed with his team's ability to fight back.
That is not a typical characteristic of a young team. The Magic are growing up pretty quickly and learning to protect their home court and win games. These are both goals the team had in the preseason.
There is a lot of season left, but this team might be different than we all initially believed.