Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic learned playoff lessons to slow down Milwaukee Bucks

Nikola Vucevic became the catalyst for the Orlando Magic, dominating the Milwaukee Bucks and leading the team to a surprising Game 1 win. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic became the catalyst for the Orlando Magic, dominating the Milwaukee Bucks and leading the team to a surprising Game 1 win. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images) /

Nikola Vucevic shook off his poor performance in last year’s Playoffs with a showing worthy of an All-Star. It led the Orlando Magic to a stunning win.

89. Final. 122. 38. 110

Nikola Vucevic knows the stories that are out there. He knows the disappointment everyone felt with his playoff performances last year. He knows that for his team to succeed, he carries a huge responsibility.

Games do not get won or lost by one player alone, it truly takes a team especially with this team. But playoff basketball is about stars stepping up. Everyone knows exactly what is coming and coaches make their money in little tweaks to get players the same open shots or take advantage of other holes in the defense.

But really it is about the players. It is about who steps up and beats good defense and who finds a way to propel their team forward. Everything revolves around a team’s best player.

And for the Orlando Magic, that is Vucevic.

He knows, the fans know and the league knows he did not step up last year. If the Magic were going to make any kind of noise in the postseason, he would have to do better.

If his Game 1 performance in a 122-110 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks is any indication, Vucevic has learned some major playoff lessons and is about to silence a lot of doubters in the process.

Vucevic scored a game-high 35 points to go with 14 rebounds and 15-for-24 shooting, including 5-for-8 shooting from deep. The Magic got the ball to him early, where he scored 12 points to get the Magic to an early 10-point lead.

The Magic scored the biggest upset of the playoffs to date, shocking everyone with their precision and physicality. They led for nearly the entire game.

And Vucevic was the main catalyst for it.

"“My mindset was to be aggressive,” Nikola Vucevic said after Tuesday’s game. “When I’m aggressive, whether it is shooting the ball or trying to make plays, a lot of good things happen for our team. When I get the ball and I stay aggressive, I attract the defense to me and can make plays for other people. My mindset has to be aggressive. I have to take on that role.”"

Vucevic credited the coaching staff for a strong gameplan. Indeed, Orlando did everything right and seemed prepared for the kind of shots the Bucks defense would give up. Milwaukee struggled to adjust.

Coach Steve Clifford said no one seemed to prepare more and be more in tune with the gameplan than Nikola Vucevic. He was one of the first people back in the gym when the Amway Center reopened. He has played well through the seeding round.

But this was different. The playoffs demand a bit more from their best players. That was something Vucevic struggled with last year — and even at points during the seeding round. To see him step up like this provides a huge boost to the team and changed the whole outlook for the team.

For Vucevic, it was a consistent and constant drumbeat. Everything in perfect flow and rhythm. It never felt like Vucevic was rushing — although he still had five turnovers and several moments of frustration or near misses.

Clifford said his preparation for the playoffs has been extremely detailed. Clifford said he is confident Vucevic is ready for this playoff series and he will adjust and get better as the series goes on.

Vucevic learned some key lessons from last year’s postseason that he carried with him.

"“I just thought last year I was overthinking stuff a little bit,” Vucevic said after Tuesday’s game. “I wasn’t really playing my game. I got out of what I do. I realized I have to stick with that. Obviously there are adjustments I’m going to have to make and stuff they are going to take away, but there are still ways for me to be effective. I came out with an aggressive mindset. Coach wanted me to be aggressive and take on that role. And I want to do that.”"

Indeed, it looked like Vucevic was playing at a smoother pace. Some of that is the Milwaukee Bucks do not play the same physical defense that the Toronto Raptors do. There is no Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka looking to bump Nikola Vucevic off his spot.

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D.J. Augustin said Nikola Vucevic had something prove after last year’s playoff performance. It certainly looked like he was trying to put that behind him.

But a lot of it was the Magic’s game plan put Vucevic in spots where he could score if he had the confidence and the drive to take those shots.

It did not stop there. Vucevic was able to get into the paint more later in the game, making six of eight shots at the rim. The Bucks’ vaunted drop coverage could not stop him on his rolls as they tried to protect against his jumper.

That eventually opened everything up. The Bucks pulled Brook Lopez, one of their best defenders, and the Magic suddenly had free reign to attack the lane with Vucevic either as a low-post option or as a decoy.

In one big sequence, the Magic caught Terrence Ross on a cut to the basket for a jam. The Magic went to that well again as the defense tried to stop him from getting to the 3-point line while sticking close to Vucevic. Ross rubbed off that screen and hit another layup.

Then the Magic made them pay again. The defense went with Ross as he cut to the rim again. Vucevic popped out and hit a big 3-pointer. That made it a 15-point game with six minutes to play.

Vucevic may not have gotten credited with the assist there. But the whole play was created from his gravity. The Bucks had no answer for him.

"“He had control of the game,” Terrence Ross said after Game 1. “He came out full throttle from the start to the finish. We’re going to need that from him to keep winning.”"

It still took the team making those shots — whether it was Gary Clark or James Ennis or Nikola Vucevic. Orlando picked up confidence early because the key parts of their gameplan worked flawlessly and produced results.

It all started with Vucevic.

He popped and found his space to shoot as the Milwaukee Bucks tried to crowd the paint. He was able to hit threes and mid-range jumpers to get the team going. And the Bucks were suddenly scrambling for answers.

The whole game revolved around Vucevic. This was his game and he pummeled the Bucks, forcing them to change.

The victory is not Vucevic’s alone. It was a stellar gameplan executed exceptionally well that led to the victory.

But to see Vucevic leading the way after all he went through in last year’s playoffs, that changed so much about what this team can do.

"“From every experience you have in life in general you learn from,” Vucevic said after Tuesday’s game. “Last year for me personally the playoffs were a bit of a struggle. I didn’t adjust well to the different style of play. Today was a little better from me. You can expect a better response from them. They are here to try to win it all. They aren’t going to just lay down. We have to take it to another level as well.”"

There is still work to do. This is just one game.

Next. Orlando Magic's whole season waited for playoff return. dark

The Bucks will inevitably adjust. They will find a way to force Vucevic out of his comfort zone. Orlando will have to find a new way to score. Vucevic will have to find a new way to be effective.