Orlando Magic finding no way to help Nikola Vucevic

Nikola Vucevic continues to carry the Orlando Magic. Without some help and some organization, the efforts will likely not be enough. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
Nikola Vucevic continues to carry the Orlando Magic. Without some help and some organization, the efforts will likely not be enough. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports /

77. 38. 104. 29. Final

Everyone knew it was coming.

The Miami Heat had done it for most of Thursday’s game against the Orlando Magic. The San Antonio Spurs had taken to this strategy too.

Stopping the Magic had become all too easy. And there were opportunities to be had knowing the Magic had only one way to go.

So the Magic beat the initial double team to get the ball to Nikola Vucevic at the high post. He was waiting for the next part of the play to develop, but Patrick Mills was waiting in the weeds and stole the ball from him as he tried to turn back toward the middle and attack the lane.

He had no warning that Mills was coming and he took it to the other end for an easy lay up, completing a 31-10 second quarter for the Spurs.

Nikola Vucevic also had no other outlet. Facing the prospect of such a terrible quarter, Vucevic was trying to do all he could to lift the team. Everything went through him.

Nikola Vucevic is the only consistent option for the injury-depleted Orlando Magic. The team is struggling to find anyone else who can help offensively and the results are suffering for it.

By the end of the game, he was the team’s only option. His 26 points on 12-for-18 shooting represented the only offense the team could muster in a 104-77 loss Friday.

The Magic just had no answers. And even coach Steve Clifford had to take the heat for not finding a way to get the offense going.

The Magic’s 79.4 offensive rating this game was the worst of the season, and the worst for the team since a 2018 game at Dallas. It takes a lot to be that futile offensively.

"“A lot was playcalling,” Clifford said after Friday’s game. “My vision of what we were going to be able to run with those groups on the floor didn’t work out at all. I let our guys, particularly at the end of the second and early in the fourth, I just didn’t have a good enough plan to help them. On the road, they’re obviously a really good defensive team, you have to have things to go to and we struggled to find enough ways to play offense.”"

The Magic got the 26 points from Nikola Vucevic, but saw only one other player score in double figures (Dwayne Bacon with 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting). Additionally, the team had no other players shoot better than 50-percent from the floor.

Vucevic was quite literally alone as the team ran everything through him. He recorded a 33.8-percent usage rate, marking his eighth game this season with a usage rate greater than 30-percent. He had only eight such games last season. He had 23 total games with that high a usage in the 2019 season.

Vucevic is not usually this high-volume of a player. But the Magic have nowhere else to turn.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

"“He’s playing at an incredibly high level,” Clifford said after Friday’s loss. “It all starts with his approach. We had stretches in that game where we were playing through him on every possession on the perimeter, as a playmaker and in the post. You can see tonight, similar to last night, sometimes before he gets the ball he has three guys on him. When he does, which young players can learn from, he makes the right play. It’s why he is such a good player.”"

Vucevic was kicking it out and doing all he could. But the shots were not falling. It is hard to ask him to do anything more.

Without Vucevic

The true sign was how badly the team got beat with Nikola Vucevic off the floor for his normal rest at the start of the second and fourth quarters. The Orlando Magic lost both by huge margins to the San Antonio Spurs.

With Vucevic off the floor to start the second quarter, Orlando lost a 13-point lead, giving up a 15-2 run and going -11 to start the quarter. The group of Michael Carter-Williams, Chasson Randle, Gary Clark, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mohamed Bamba just had no offensive push. The team was literally hanging by a thread.

Things got worse when Vucevic left the floor in the fourth quarter. Orlando gave up a 17-2 run to open the quarter that put the game firmly out of reach. The same five again gained zero traction.

It was clear even then that Orlando was going to have to keep things close for Vucevic to get his normal rest so he could return and try to give the team a closing kick. This time around, they were too far gone to make it worth putting Vucevic back in the game, especially on the back end of a back-to-back.

All eyes have been on the Magic’s All-Star throughout the course of the season. But now that pressure and focus have only increased. And other players need to step up.

"“Vooch draws a lot of people,” said Chuma Okeke, who shot 2 for 9 and 1 for 7 from deep in his first start. “When he kicks it out to us, that shows he has trust in us to make those shots. We have to knock down the shots. I feel like we are getting good looks, but we’re just missing shots. I missed a lot of shots.”"

At the end of the day, the Magic need to do a better job getting open shots and working to move the ball. They have to find ways to diversify their offense and find different ways to attack.

That will help Vucevic get cleaner shots as much as it will help the offense generally flow better.

All he can do

Nikola Vucevic is doing all he can in the meantime. He is trying to get others involved and pass out of the double teams that are coming for him. He is working to get himself free and suck up all the attention that comes from the constant double teams.

He just needs his teammates to deliver.

"“I don’t think there is much else I can do,” Vucevic said after Friday’s game. “Just play the game the best way I can. I try to make the best play in the moment. It’s just hard when you have players out of position and you can’t run stuff that you usually run. Tonight we had to run so much stuff through me, that we don’t necessarily do. The Spurs were able to focus a lot on me. We got some good shots. We got the ball out and moved it a little bit. But it’s not as easy.”"

There are nights where shots will not fall. That is the nature of the league. But this was certainly something different.

The team’s stockpiling of injuries and the gutting of the roster has caught up to the team in a major way.

Orlando is playing without five of the team’s top scorers from this season. That does not even include Jonathan Isaac who is out for the entire season. This Magic team is playing without so many key players, it is hard to fault them too much for being a bit out of sync.

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  • Nobody outside of Vucevic is playing a role they were meant to play. And with so little practice time — the team had one practice before the season resumed — it is hard to get all the timing and execution down other than on the fly. Clifford has had to ask a lot of a lot of players.

    On both ends, the Magic have struggled to put it all together. And the results are not all that surprising.

    "“There’s two things that all NBA teams have to have,” Steve Clifford said after Friday’s game. “They have to have confidence in what we’re doing. That’s my job. And the confidence that if we all play well, we can have success. We played good enough defense tonight to win. Even last night, except for the bad fouls on Jimmy Butler, that would have been a top-10 defensive game last night. . . . We are capable of playing better and that’s what we have to focus on.”"

    Clifford pointed out the Magic trailed the final playoff spot in 2019 by 5.5 games with 31 games to go. The team is not giving up on those playoff dreams quite yet.

    But that teams also had the benefit of a home-heavy schedule, a soft part in their schedule to build confidence (not to mention wins right before the All-Star Break to slingshot back into the race) and the “luxury” of regular practice time.

    This team will have none of those things. This season.

    While the team will continue to look for little improvements such as the defense, putting together a full effort will still be a struggle. And finding someone who can add a little bit of offensive punch is going to be about getting healthy.

    Orlando Magic still need discipline through the injuries. dark. Next

    Until then, Vucevic is largely working alone. And the team just has to be better finding him help as best they can.