Orlando Magic Playbook: How the Toronto Raptors have eliminated Nikola Vucevic

Nikoila Vucevic's struggles in the playoffs perhaps previewed a murky future. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nikoila Vucevic's struggles in the playoffs perhaps previewed a murky future. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images) /
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Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors
TORONTO, CANADA – APRIL 13: Nikola Vucevic #9 of the Orlando Magic shoots the ball against the Toronto Raptors during Game One of Round One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 13, 2019 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The pick and pop problem

So if the post-ups are not working for Nikola Vucevic, then the team has to turn to pick and rolls to try to get him going and scoring. That will at least loosen the defense.

Here the Toronto Raptors have again caused a lot of problems for the Orlando Magic. The Magic simply have struggled to execute pick and rolls consistently. And the Raptors have counteracted Vucevic on pick and rolls by attacking the ball handlers with pressure.

Toronto’s length and ability to switch almost every position has stymied the team’s ability to get into the paint and turn the corner into the lane. The Magic’s offense has accurately gotten stuck in these situations.

The Raptors’ perimeter defense has been tough to crack. But they have even made it difficult to get Vucevic involved in pick and rolls. The pressure Toronto employed on Orlando ball handlers kept the team from even initiating pick and roll sets. That eliminates a lot of Vucevic’s effectiveness already.

This dribble handoff action is fairly common for the Magic. They deliver the ball to Vucevic in the high post and he waits for the guard to run off him to hand the ball off. He then can act as a screener immediately in a pick and roll.

Early in the game, the Raptors do a good job of defending this action. Marc Gasol holds his ground and steps up to prevent any further dribble penetration. Danny Green stays with D.J. Augustin and is able to keep him from seeing Nikola Vucevic rolling to the short corner.

They are able to work in concert to prevent any passing lane from opening up and Vucevic is effectively taken out of the play. Perhaps Augustin can anticipate this and dish it to Vucevic sooner. Or maybe Jonathan Isaac can cut to the hoop behind Pascal Siakam, who is pinching in to further keep D.J. Augustin from the lane.

The issue here is again, there are no outlets for Augustin. He either restarts the play or forces a pass. He does the latter and it results in a turnover.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Toronto is giving Orlando a bit of a taste of its own medicine here too. The Raptors are looking to condense the paint and keep players from reaching the middle. They use their length to slow down any quick passes that might break the defense down.

Usually, you will see the weakside wing player cheat with one foot int he paint. It is usually Siakam defending Isaac. Toronto seems content to let Isaac fire away from three.

Orlando uses a lot of these same principles in their coverages and might give a similar look, minus the aggressive trapping and blitzing on screens. Of course, the Raptors have much better 3-point shooters than the Magic and that could leave the Magic overexposed at the foul line.

Even when Vucevic gets shots in the pick and roll, he experiences the same problem he has in the post. He moves too quickly and does not have his feet under him. He is rushing to avoid dealing with the pressure before it comes.

A quick decision is always good. It does not allow the defense to get set. But he still has to be playing at a comfortable pace to get off a good shot. Gasol typically does a good job recovering to contest and make even those clean looks tough.

You can see in a play like this just how much the Raptors’ length has pushed the Magic out of their comfort zone. A quick trap at the top of the key forces Evan Fournier to pick up his dribble and abort the play. Toronto could have smothered him there but the pause to pick up his dribble allows the defense to reset before Fournier can make any quick passes to take advantage of that gap.

Time and time again, Toronto’s length and athleticism close down passing lanes and allow players to guard two guys at once if there is no proper spacing or weakside actions to try to help out the player with the ball.

For the Magic to break down this Raptors defense, they will need to move, read and react quickly. They cannot sit and wait for those traps to come, they have to anticipate and read where they are coming from.

Vucevic does too. On the play above, he does a good job settling into an open area. When the ball reverses to Augustin, Vucevic is in a position to catch the ball and make a quick move. Gasol is there to meet him, but no one would likely complain too much about this kind of a look.

This is more similar to the kind of play the Magic have to make. But they have to be more aggressive attacking those traps and helping each other. That will also help free Vucevic to score and siphon attention from the defense.

Essentially, the Raptors’ plan to counteract Vucevic in the pick and roll is to double the ball handler and put him under pressure. With Green taking on Augustin, Toronto has a length advantage at almost every position Evan Fournier on Kyle Lowry the only exception, and it is this matchup they blitz especially.

Orlando has to understand where the help is, where the trap is coming from and move the ball quickly. Probably even into Vucevic rolling to the free throw line or free throw line extended as a safety outlet.