Nikola Vucevic’s consistency has become mundane and expected. That has become the foundation for the Orlando Magic’s Playoff push.
The NBA All-Star Game is supposed to be a celebration of the league’s biggest stars and the upcoming stars. It is a showcase of the entire league for fans. The league wants to put its best foot forward and reward the players for a strong season.
The best of the best get to play on the big stage Sunday. And while that cast of characters is largely the same year to year, it is exciting for players and teams that are new and fresh to get their chance. Even if it is just for a bit.
The Orlando Magic had not had an All-Star for six years. They had been cast adrift in the seas of a perpetual rebuild.
Finally, the Magic had someone on that stage. They were competing for a Playoff spot and earned a spot on the big stage.
Only to have that moment slightly ruined.
Nikola Vucevic had few touches in his 12 minutes on the floor during the All-Star Game. When he corraled a loose ball on offense and started to post up, he took his chance. His running hook over Karl-Anthony Towns was a great representation of his touch and skill — likely one of the first times the NBA world at large got to see Nikola Vucevic on display.
Marv Albert gave the call in his voice filled with gravitas. And named him Nikola Jokic instead.
On Vucevic’s second basket of the evening, a tip-in on an offensive rebound, Albert again seemed to be shuffling through papers searching for Vucevic’s name before correctly identifying him this time.
That was not even the worst of it.
Magic fans got their fill of Zach Harper of the Athletic’s snarky tweet about the All-Star Game and Vucevic, who was not even the least productive player in the game adding in five rebounds and three assists in a game that is certainly not tailored for his game.
The Magic receded to the background of the national consciousness with Vucevic barely making a blip on that national stage.
But throughout the third quarter of the season, Vucevic has made everyone around the league take notice of his team. They still have their warts and they still have work to do. But they enter the fourth quarter of the season squarely in the Playoff race — and by some measures statistically likely to make the final eight.
As it has been throughout the season, that falls on Vucevic and the way he has played.
He is the guiding force for the team offensively and increasingly on defense too. And the Magic made their first big late-season tear through the league to establish themselves as players for one of the final Playoff spots.
Vucevic proved to be the rock and foundation for all of that to build upon.
The important number of the last 21 games? The Magic went 11-10. They finished with the fifth-best net rating in the league. Their offense came alive to post 111.9 points per 100 possessions. Their defense got stronger giving up 106.2 points per 100 possessions, third best in the league from Jan. 12-Feb. 26.
Orlando was a good team in that stretch.
A lot of it was because of other players making big leaps. Jonathan Isaac took a huge step in his game as he started draining 3-pointers more consistently and looked more confident and dominant on defense. And coach Steve Clifford found a stronger rotation that included Isaiah Briscoe stepping into the rotation and playing like a more experienced, seasoned player.
The foundation for all of this was Vucevic. Through all the wild swings of the season, it has been Vucevic who has been the foundation for everything else to grow from. Almost every player can point to some part of the season where they were struggling with some form of inconsistency.
It could be Evan Fournier‘s shooting swoon through the early parts of the season. Jonathan Isaac still searching for his place in the league. Aaron Gordon‘s inconsistent jumper and scoring. Terrence Ross‘ general up-and-down play (more up than down this year in this career season).
Vucevic has been the one playing at a career-best through it all. Without a doubt and without question.
Vucevic averaged 21.5 points per game, 12.2 rebounds per game and 4.3 assists per game. All while shooting 51.8 percent from the floor and 39.3 percent from beyond the arc. Other players began picking up their pace and providing a measurable positive contribution.
But Vucevic is the only player who has really done that all year without fail.
Some incredible performances from Vucevic are now described as ho-hum. Grabbing 11 rebounds and scoring 20-plus points is what has come to be expected from Vucevic. And he largely delivers that every night.
Vucevic did not score fewer than 15 points in any game during this stretch. But he also did not have any incredibly memorable games either. There was no outburst against the Los Angeles Lakers as he did earlier in the year. A 29-point, 14-rebound effort against the Atlanta Hawks on Martin Luther King Day might qualify as his best game in this time period.
There were shinier toys that could have gotten this honor.
No one’s emergence is probably more responsible for the Magic’ surging up the standings and looking more like a Playoff team and not merely one taking advantage of a weak conference than Jonathan Isaac.
Isaac averaged 11.5 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game and 1.8 blocks per game in the third quarter of the season. His brilliance came in the final 10-or-so games. That equates to half the quarter. But that run was enough to save the Magic’s season and put them squarely in the conversation.
But again, none of that happens without Vucevic always being there. None of that happens without Vucevic taking away as much pressure as he can from everyone else on the roster. That allowed for a revolving cast of sidekicks and players to step up. Vucevic was always there simply performing and anchoring the team.
There is no doubt Vucevic is the best player on this team. He is the guy that everything else on the roster revolves around.
Offensively he directs traffic as the guy defenses have to account for. And he continues to make strides defensively, proving he can anchor a top-10 defense.
Now the team needs him to act like the star more at times, demanding the ball in late-game situations and being a calming influence when everything seems to go awry.
That part is still a work in progress for Vucevic. And might be the most vital role he plays in this Playoff chase.
But there is no denying the Magic are not anywhere near where they are without Vucevic. Always producing and devastatingly consistent every single night.
Maybe now someone will take notice.