Orlando Magic 2019 Season Review: What Went Wrong — Nikola Vucevic in the playoffs

The Orlando Magic's Nikola Vucevic (9) is swarmed by Toronto Raptors defenders, including forward Pascal Sikam (43), Marc Gasol (33) and Danny Green, right, during Game 2 in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada, on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's Nikola Vucevic (9) is swarmed by Toronto Raptors defenders, including forward Pascal Sikam (43), Marc Gasol (33) and Danny Green, right, during Game 2 in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada, on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images) /

Nikola Vucevic turned in a stellar season that should have led to a strong postseason for the Orlando Magic. Instead, it became a nightmare for him.

The tension finally felt lifted in the third quarter of Game 3 of the Orlando Magic’s playoff series with the Toronto Raptors.

Aaron Gordon dropped a behind the back pass to Nikola Vucevic and he drained a 3-pointer. The shot was a big one in the game, drawing the Magic closer to the Raptors’ lead and showing them they were going to make this a game and not give up the series lead so easily.

For Nikola Vucevic it was a sigh of relief. Proof he could find his rhythm and could get going to be with his team. Everything seemed to be more relaxed from that point on for him in the quarter.

He got the ball in the post, having gotten Marc Gasol in foul trouble, and patiently but quickly attacked the smaller Serge Ibaka. He got his hook shot going and moved before the double teams could surround him.

Vucevic scored 14 of his series-high 22 points in that third quarter. He started to look like the Vucevic who paced the Magic through the regular season and became an All-Star. His scoring binge was welcome relief and you could see that relief on his face.

Like so much in that playoff series, success was extremely short-lived. The Magic took the lead on a shot from Vucevic and then the Raptors burned off a 17-0 run and took control of the game. Orlando came back to make it close, but Vucevic again was not much of a factor.

He would not be much of a factor the rest of the series. Orlando could never find its rhythm and could never get Vucevic involved.

The credit should go to Gasol and his smothering defense on him. The credit should go to the Raptors’ defense that came with late and unpredictable doubles and clearly knocked Vucevic off his game.

But there is always a bit more to it than the defense. When a player that played so well in the regular season, plays so poorly there is always a bit more.

Vucevic finished his postseason run averaging 11.2 points per game, 8.0 rebounds per game and 3.0 assists per game. He shot just 36.2 percent from the floor overall and made only 3 of his 13 3-pointers.

There were plenty of players who disappointed in the playoffs. But none disappointed quite as much as Vucevic.

Everything that fell apart about the series started with the team’s best player failing to step his game up. That is what a team needs in the playoffs, especially if they are trying to score an upset.

The Magic needed Vucevic. And he just was not himself.

It has less to do with the production. That was a byproduct of his struggles to remain poised with the pressure the Raptors threw at him.

His poise and consistency is what made his season and made him valuable throughout the season. Perhaps most disappointing was how flustered he looked with the physicality Gasol played with throughout the series and how imprecise and quick his passes were out to the perimeter. Without pinpoint passing, the Magic’s offense could not get its legs under it.

The pressure got to him in so many ways.

Toronto was able to get Vucevic to hurry through his passes and, at times it felt, play a bit scared. He did not want the ball. That rushed him on open shots too. Vucevic made only 8 of his 27 shots (29.6 percent) when the closest defender was more than four feet away. During the regular season, Vucevic hit on 45.9 percent of those shots.

That is a huge difference and showed just the effect the Raptors had on him. He makes those open shots, as he did in that Game 3 spurt, and the series is very different. There are several players who also struggled in the same way.

The star rightly gets the focus though. The Magic needed someone to raise their game. All three of their captains struggled to do so in their own way — Aaron Gordon was really the only one who started to try to assert himself and that did not really come until Game 4.

But Vucevic got special attention. He was the team’s All-Star but also the focus of fan attention for six years for all his flaws and what he could not do. This series seemed to highlight that in stark reality heading into his free agency — a controversial issue among Magic fans.

Vucevic struggled with the physicality the playoffs brought. Gasol played him tough and made his life difficult throughout the series. Vucevic was unable to get to the shots he trusts and the Raptors kept him off balance throughout the entire series.

light. Related Story. What Went Right: Nikola Vucevic

Defensively, he struggled in Game 2 specifically to help Aaron Gordon defend Kawhi Leonard. His defense was better overall throughout the year, but it was clear the Raptors were trying to engage and attack him in pick and rolls.

He was not bad defensively in the series for the most part, but he did not make a huge impact on that end. At least, not as much as everyone thinks Mohamed Bamba can.

Vucevic did little to quiet questions about his ultimate place with this team during his playoff run. Those five games made a lot of people forget about the regular season performance he put together. He had a stellar 82 games that got the Magic to the playoffs.

But the playoffs are where the money is made and where legacies are really built. And Vucevic’s struggles seemed to confirm the criticisms a lot of people reserved for him even during his All-Star season.

Winning and losing was ultimately what mattered. In the Magic’s lone playoff win, Vucevic made two incredible passes late despite his offensive frustrations that helped deliver a win for the team. He struggled to make those secondary plays when his scoring was not working throughout the series. The Raptors just choked him off.

A summer that should have been a recognition and coronation of Vucevic — by someone — now seems like a referendum on him entirely. It is amazing what those five games can do and how much weight they can have on the narrative.

Next. What Went Wrong: Aaron Gordon's star turn. dark

Vucevic found very little relief in his playoff series in the end.