Nikola Vucevic returns from absence better than ever

Mar 31, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) passes the ball in front of Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) during the second half at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 31, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) passes the ball in front of Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) during the second half at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

Nikola Vucevic returned from his three-week absence with a groin injury like he never missed a step. Knocking off some rust, he scored 24 points with ease.

38. Final. 94. 100. 114

There was never any thought of shutting down Nikola Vucevic. When the center finally relented to the pain and discomfort of a sore groin that had bothered him for a month and sat out before the Orlando Magic’s West Coast trip in early March.

For 13 games he sat, the team unsure when he would return. It was clear though when he could return he would. There would be no shutting him down.

But time was running out.

The Magic are still pushing for wins. And they are a better team with Vucevic available, flaws and all.

Even coming off the bench, Nikola Vucevic had to prove his value again and get back into shape quickly to help his team and not disrupt the sudden rhythm they had found since being eliminated from Playoff contention. There may not be anything meaningful to play for but pride, but that is enough.

After a three week absence, no one could blame Vucevic for looking a little tentative. And in the first half Vucevic admitted he was a bit slow. The movement was labored. He was making his shots, but he did not quite have his legs under him.

He got beat a few times in the post and was a little slow to react. He was not aggressive and asserting himself within the offense. This was a player still coming back from injury.

The second half?

There was definitely more comfort. There was definitely more involvement. There was definitely some of the play from Vucevic the Magic have missed the last few weeks.

When he got the ball in the post, he was double teamed freeing up his teammates. And he made the right pass out of the double team. When he popped out for screens, he hit the jumper with ease.

The second half was Vucevic at his most lethal and his most efficient, proving to be the difference between the Magic having to gut one out against the Indiana Pacers and the Magic blowing the Pacers out like they did 114-94 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday.

Vucevic, in all, scored 24 points and grabbed six rebounds. He made 12 of his 15 shots, getting four of his five field goals at the rim to fall. The Magic were +14 with Vucevic on the floor. He was the player the Magic have come to rely on so much this season as their safety valve and leading scorer.

And he simply dominated the Pacers by finding the gaps in their defense and exploiting them.

In the second half, with those butterflies and some of that rust knocked off, Vucevic just went to work. He set picks and popped out for his jumper. He set up in the post and scored. When he faced up his defender, he let the shot fly in his face and made it. It loosened everything up.

Should Vucevic jump back into the starting lineup Friday night in Milwaukee? Probably not yet. The Magic

Vucevic had a strong game individually, but there were plenty of signs of rust. He was a bit slow on a few defensive rotations and got beat on some occasions. He was not particularly aggressive, just in rhythm making his jumper. Once he got his legs under him, the Pacers could not stop him. Not that they were being very physical with him — or anyone as the Magic scored easily throughout the game.

Where Vucevic succeeded most was fitting in to the lineup that was already working. He slid in seamlessly into Orlando’s newfound pick and roll game with Elfrid Payton and Dewayne Dedmon.

Where Dedmon would roll all the way to the rim, Vucevic would pop. Payton seamlessly attacked the basket and the paint, sucking the defense in for Vucevic. Vucevic just had to make the shot or be in the spot for Payton to dish it to him.

Just more than 90 percent of Vucevic’s field goal makes were assists Thursday. His success tonight was as much about his ability to hit shots and draw in the defense as it was the Magic’s superb ball movement once again.

Everything is clicking once again for Orlando. Vucevic is just another cog to that wheel, fitting in seamlessly.

At some point, when Vucevic feels comfortable, he will go back into the starting lineup. He is too good and demands too much defensive attention not to. The Magic will risk losing some of Dewayne Dedmon’s defensive energy to have Vucevic’s consistency on offense back in there.

Next: Orlando Magic offense razor sharp in rout of Indiana Pacers

Right now, it is simply good to have Vucevic back bringing his normalcy and consistency to the lineup once again.