Nikola Vucevic will either make or break Orlando Magic in the Playoffs

Nikola Vucevic is not the kind of player to take over games. But the Orlando Magic need him to step up to be Playoff ready. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic is not the kind of player to take over games. But the Orlando Magic need him to step up to be Playoff ready. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /

The playoffs demand a team’s best players step up and make plays. Nikola Vucevic’s style is not to do this, but the Orlando Magic will need him to step up.

38. Final. 96. 147. 108

For someone who puts up All-Star numbers and is seemingly the only offensive constant on a scoring-challenged team, Nikola Vucevic’s game is still incredibly understated. He is a drumbeat, just finding gaps in defenses and working pick and rolls. He positions himself well to score on putbacks.

The Orlando Magic have been able to count on him for much of his eight years with the team and even more in the last two years. So long as the team can generate a pick and roll and give him some space to float to, he will make defenses pay.

That was until last year’s playoffs.

In his first postseason as a rotation player, he found out just how difficult life can be when teams choke off that space. Nikola Vucevic went from averaging 20.8 points per game on a 54.9-percent effective field goal percentage in the 2019 regular season to 11.2 points per game on a 38.8-percent effective field goal percentage in the playoffs.

The playoffs exposed a weakness in Vucevic. One that perhaps his critics already understood.

He struggled against physical centers and looked to avoid physical contact at times. His over-reliance on his jumper then put him at risk of bad games.

It was not just Vucevic. The Toronto Raptors revealed a lot of the team’s overall shortcomings. But it exposed Vucevic’s shortcoming as a leading man and a pillar of the team’s offense.

Once again with the playoffs on the horizon, the Magic are entering them with a lot of questions. They do not quite know how they will consistently generate offense. And, more importantly, they do not quite know how they will rise to the occasion.

More than anything, the playoffs demand the best players rise to the occasion. That they beat defenses loaded up to stop them. And that has always been the charge to the best players in the postseason. How can they create and lift their teams up.

This is the charge levied on Vucevic once again. It was the charge he struggled to rise to in last year’s playoff matchup.

But to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks next week, they will need him to keep Brook Lopez away from the basket and use his short rolling and 3-point shooting to get them out of their aggressive drop coverages.

Through the games inside the NBA campus, Vucevic has not shown he is ready to take on this responsibility. Everyone is waiting to see if he has that extra level.

Instead through the course of this five-game losing streak, the Magic have been searching for energy and searching for consistency from their best players. Orlando has found itself down big early, needing some time to find their level and compete.

More from Orlando Magic Daily

That was once again the case against the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday in a 106-98 loss. In a game where the Nets were playing without their center in Jarrett Allen, starting the much-smaller Rodions Kurucs, Nikola Vucevic continually struggled to take advantage.

He scored 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting. Only six of those 15 were inside the restricted area. The first of those shots not coming until midway through the first quarter on a mid-post look.

But it was how those shots came about. They were post ups stopped short or quick flips to the basket. They were not of a player looking to carry the team to a win, especially after so many of those in-between shots missed and he had the space to attack and put more pressure on the defense.

With so many key players out, Vucevic was undoubtedly the best player on the floor. Everyone on the Magic was going to take their cues from him.

Vucevic didn’t have his touch for whatever reason. And that lack of focus or lack of touch went to everyone on the team. Without the threat from Vucevci everyone else was closed off. Without Vucevic doing all he could to get to the basket and make shots, everyone else dialed back their aggression.

It is about playing with a level of aggression to attack when it calls for it to help his team. Especially in a game like this. Orlando leaned on Vucevic to carry them. . . and he did not.

That is not playoff ready. That is the clear goal for these final games and it is hard to say the Magic are getting there.

"“The only thing I’m disappointed in is what we need to do is we have to get ourselves to the right intensity level,” coach Steve Clifford said after Tuesday’s game. “We had some key guys tonight who have to get ready who didn’t do that. You can’t waste days. We didn’t get much out of this game other than some conditioning.”"

Clifford said the goal remains to be to make progress. But the team continues not to have the right intensity or concentration to get there. He said some players took the day off, in essence.

That may not have been a direct reference to Vucevic. But ultimately questions of effort and intensity fall to the team’s leader on the floor. And in the playoffs, the team will need its best player — or its central focus to lift his play.

This has been a repeated problem.

These final two games are supposed to be something of a tune-up for the Playoffs. Instead, it continued a run of five games where the Magic have lacked energy and precision.

Vucevic’s averages look fine during this five-game losing streak — 19.0 points per game on 44.2-percent shooting overall. But it is clearly not enough to give his team energy.

The Magic often look to establish him early and he has struggled at the beginning of games — 5.4 points per game 50.5-percent shooting in first quarters this season, but 4.6 points per game on 45.5-percent shooting during this losing streak — but Vucevic has struggled to deliver that strong base.

He did against the Boston Celtics in staking the team’s energy for much of that game. He did not against the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors. And in the fourth quarter, it was Joel Embiid carrying the Philadelphia 76ers to a win.

Part of the playoffs is seeing a team’s best players step up. And this is the biggest question and weakness for the Magic as they near the postseason.

Vucevic’s game is not one where he takes over. He is not a straight post-up player or some one-on-one savant. But, to be sure, the Magic will need Vucevic to pick his spot and take over the game.

More importantly, they will need him to keep the team’s energy up with efficient baskets and, at times, plays that go outside his comfort zone.

For sure, part of the goal this season, especially for the Magic’s veterans, was to get back to the playoffs and prove that their series against the Raptors was first-time jitters more than anything else.

Everything about this season has been with that eye toward the postseason and proving themselves once again.

Next. Markelle Fultz is ready to start and the Orlando Magic need him. dark

The question of whether he can reach this level is central to the Magic’s potential playoff success — and perhaps his ultimate future with the team.