Nikola Vucevic has become a star with Playoff redemption series

Nikola Vucevic has taken a star turn in the Orlando Magic's 2020 Playoff run. (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic has taken a star turn in the Orlando Magic's 2020 Playoff run. (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images) /

After struggling in last year’s Playoff series, Nikola Vucevic has stepped his game up and proven he was the All-Star that led the team the past two years back to the postseason.

It looks like a battle of two superstars.

On one side of the fence, you have the reigning, and likely back-to-back, MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo. On the other side, you have an unproven center in Nikola Vucevic.

Maybe that is not quite the battle of two superstars. No one in their right mind would label Nikola Vucevic a superstar player in today’s league to the likes of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard.

Vucevic is not making the All-NBA teams. He was not even on the All-Star team this year after struggling through an early-season ankle injury.

But he is the leader and the offensive star for the 8th-seeded Orlando Magic. And he is leading the Magic as a superstar should.

It was something of a season of redemption for Vucevic. After making the All-Star team and leading his team to the playoffs for the first time in seven years, Vucevic struggled in the postseason.

He looked like a puppy against the eventual 2019 NBA Champion Toronto Raptors in the first round. In the series against the Toronto Raptors, he only averaged 11.2 points per game and 8.0 rebounds per game. His field goal percentage dropped to 36.2 percent with a 38.8-percent effective field goal percentage.

That kind of playoff performance haunted him throughout the year. Everyone knew Vucevic could put up strong numbers and he was once again expected to lead his team back to the postseason. But the real questions he had to answer were not going to come until the postseason.

It did not matter if he put in another strong season — 19.6 points per game, 10.9 rebounds per game, 47.7-percent field goal percentage and 52.5-percent effective field goal percentage, all down but only slightly from last year’s All-Star season. The playoffs are the ultimate measure of a player. That is where great players truly become stars.

All eyes were on him. For the Orlando Magic to have any chance to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks in their first-round playoff series, they would need Vucevic in a big way.

From the first game of the series — the Magic’s surprising 122-110 victory — this postseason has changed Vucevic’s profile amongst his colleagues. He is finally living up to his potential as an NBA player and leader of a playoff team.

Thoughts of last year’s playoff series have almost completely gone away as he continues to torch the Bucks and raise his game to keep his team in the series.

No one will blame Vucevic if he Magic bow out after five games.

"“I’m going to keep playing my game, keep playing aggressive and play off what the defense gives me,” Vucevic said after Monday’s Game 4 loss. “I want to keep playing the way I’ve been playing and get to that level it needs to be. Just as a team, we need to find a way to do it for 48 minutes. It’s not me or anyone else at this point. We have to find a way to do it.”"

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

It is amazing how much can change in a year because this postseason Vucevic is averaging 29.5 points per game and 10.0 rebounds per game. He joined Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway and Tracy McGrady as the only players in Magic history with three 30-plus-point games in a series.

Just to put his scoring average in perspective, Nikola Vucevic’s scoring average puts him on par with Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis. He is playing like a true superstar in the league and carrying his team offensively.

Every other series in the Eastern Conference ended in a sweep after all. The Magic are still playing.

Vucevic has definitely stepped his game up from last year’s postseason and now he is mentioned as one of the best offensive players in the 2020 postseason.

It is a far cry from last year when the physicality and pressure of the postseason certainly seemed to get to him.

In Game 1 against the Raptors last year, the Magic left victorious but Vucevic only tallied 11 points in more than 30 minutes of play. And that was one of his better games in that short series.

In this year’s Game 1 against the Bucks, Vucevic scored a game-high 35 points and led his team to victory. He was the catalyst for that win, giving the team the offensive stability to hold off every run from the Bucks and taking advantage of their defense’s weaknesses.

To show that was no fluke, Vucevic proceeded to score 32 points on 13-for-23 shooting. He single-handedly gave the Magic hope of winning that game even after their horrid start.

And this entire postseason series has been like this. He scored 31 in the Magic’s Game 4 effort.

It is becoming expected that Vucevic will take advantage of the Bucks’ drop coverage and hit that mid-range jumper. Orlando is riding it and even as Milwaukee tries to double him and get the ball out of his hands. He keeps beating them.

This is the type of production you need from your best player when you don’t have complementary pieces that he can carry to prominence.

"“I really don’t think anything impressed me because he has been doing this all year,” Markelle Fultz said after Game 4. “He’s an unbelievable player, a great big and a great person. he did what he had to do give us a chance to win this series. He is dominating the floor and he’s taking what the defense gives him. He is bringing energy every night. We need the guys to help him out.”"

Vucevic is finally living up to his potential in the NBA, the center is able to compete at a high level in the Playoffs against a bona fide star in Giannis Antetokounmpo without another All-Star teammate alongside him like the Bucks have in Khris Middleton.

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  • The Magic already knew Vucevic would give them a consistent scoring option. But seeing him step up in this way on this stage certainly should give them more optimism about their future and what they can accomplish with Vucevic in the middle.

    He is committed to this franchise and organization too. The playoff loss hurt him last year and doing this is an important step in trying to help the team get to that next level.

    "“It would be amazing if we could take that step,” Vucevic said after the Game 4 loss. “We have been taking steps slowly. It has been a lot of years now. But we’re heading in the right direction. We are going to take it one step at a time and focus on Game 5 and go from there.”"

    Vucevic is earning the respect of his opponents. The Milwaukee coaches have adjusted their defensive gameplay to slow down Vucevic instead of letting him have his way.

    Who knows what this Orlando team could have been if they were healthy? They have certainly played well enough to make you believe they would have given the Bucks everything and more in this series.

    What we do know is the Magic have a leader who is not afraid to be his best version of himself in the Playoffs. Not anymore.

    Next. How the Orlando Magic wall Giannis Antetokounmpo. dark

    Philip Rossman-Reich contributed to this report.