Shortly before Orlando traded for Markelle Fultz in February, another trade took place that would ultimately have a much greater impact this season on the Magic.
The Raptors traded Jonas Valanciunas to Memphis for Marc Gasol. Now two-and-a-half months later, Gasol is playing a large role in potentially bringing the Magic’s season to an end.
The former Defensive Player of the Year, in his tenth season, remains a defensive master who uses his positioning, anticipation and physicality to his advantage. Evan at 34 years old, and a step slower than he once was, he has silenced Nikola Vucevic in the opening two games of the first round series between the Magic and Raptors.
The Magic’s inside-out offense all season has run through Vucevic, with any possession where the ball fails to enter the paint and reach his hands being considered something of a failure in the eyes of Steve Clifford. That offensive philosophy helped transform Vucevic into a first-time All-Star who averaged 20.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game while shooting 51.8 percent from the field.
That All-Star, and those numbers, has gone missing in this series.
Gasol and the Raptors, in two games this series, have caused a sharp drop in Vucevic’s production, and seemingly, his confidence. That has left the Magic scrambling - and failing - to find offense.
Gasol has bodied Vucevic out of position down low to force him away from the basket, and used aggressive ball denial to prevent entry passes that had been second nature to Orlando all season. When Vucevic does receive the ball, he is being suffocated with double teams from the weak side that have immobilized him, robbing him of his ability to operate in the post.
He has shot 6-for-21 in the first two games of the series, averaging 8.5 points om 28.6 percent shooting. More concerning is that he attempted just seven shots in Game 2, far below his season average of 16.9 per game. That has resulted from a combination of the Magic being unable to consistently deliver an entry pass to an out-of-position Vooch; Vucevic, when he does get the ball, being unable to overcome the physicality of Gasol and the help defense to even get a shot off; and/or Vucevic either rushing his attempts or being too hesitant to shoot at all. Even simply passing the ball was a challenge as Vooch committed a team-high four turnovers in Game 2, truly giving this a Monstars-stealing-talent-in-Space-Jam type of feel.
For All-Star caliber players, more is typically expected of them in the postseason as teams shorten their rotations and lean on their most reliable. Yet, Vucevic’s usage rate has dropped from 28.0 percent in the regular season to 21.7 percent in the first two games of the playoffs.
And most concerning of all is that Vucevic and Clifford don’t seem to have any solutions.
“I actually thought tonight I got the ball in decent spots in the post the few times that I did, it’s just that they double-teamed me early and it’s hard for me to create anything,” Vucevic told reporters after the game. “They do a good job taking away a lot of my strengths. I just got to figure it out, a way to be more aggressive, be more efficient offensively. I didn’t take many shots either tonight. So, I just gotta find a way to get going offensively.”
Clifford said after Game 1 that he had to get the ball to Vucevic in more advantageous situations. After Game 2, he said the Raptors double-teamed Vucevic early in the post and the Magic didn’t handle it well, and that Orlando didn’t get much out of the pick-and-roll due to poor coordination between the ball handler and screener.
“My experience in a series like this, the best players - and I believe he’s been our best player all year, he’s a very, very good player - there’s just certain things they figure out as a series goes on,” Cliffors said. “Sometimes there’s things you can help them with and sometimes they have to figure out. He’s a bright guy, he’s a very good player and I think he’ll figure this out.”
That’s easier said than done for a player like Vucevic who has never responded well to physical play, which happens to be one of Gasol’s strengths. In 11 regular season games against Gasol since coming to Orlando, Vucevic has been limited to 13.5 points per game on 45 percent shooting. Nick Nurse credited Gasol’s basketball IQ and physical nature for the Raptors’ defense on Vucevic.
“The biggest thing you’ve got to do, not with Vucevic, but with any really good post player, is try to push the catches out far away from the basket so they’re starting from a point farther away so they’re less comfortable,” Nurse said. “The percentages obviously go down the further away you can keep ’em. I just think he played him real physical, played him real smart, didn’t give him anything real easy.”
By doing so, and essentially negating Vucevic, the Raptors have removed the focal point of the Magic’s offensive system, leaving them to sputter along like a car with a dying engine. The Magic, in the first two games of the series, have struggled to get into their offensive sets, have shot just 38.6 percent and committed 28 turnovers.
So what is the solution?
Vucevic certainly won’t become a more physical player overnight, but he has to find a way to establish position down low and stand his ground against Gasol. Beating the double teams will depend on Vucevic’s teammates proving that they are consistent threats from the outside, namely Jonathan Isaac, who is shooting 33 percent in the series and has made just one of his 10 three-point attempts Until that happens, the Raptors will continue to send their lengthy help defenders to double, stuff the paint on Vucevic, and dare the Magic to shoot.
Clifford said he will look at all possible adjustments, but also placed responsibility on Vucevic.
“He’s going to have to find a way to get easy ones, whether it’s running the floor more, being more active on the offensive glass, duck ins, whatever it is, so he can get the ball deeper,” Clifford said. “A coach’s responsibility is to put guys in a position where they can play best. But also, players have to figure some things out on their own also.”
He’ll have a chance to do so in the friendly confines of the south, as the Magic return to Orlando to host their first playoff game since 2012.
There Vucevic will have to figure it out in Game 3, and regain All-Star form, for the Magic to have a chance in the series.
“I expected this,” Vucevic said. “I expected them to have a big focus on me. So, I just gotta look at the tape and look at what we can do better. We have two days now before we play, so we’ll figure out a way.”