The Los Angeles Clippers came into Orlando on Wednesday night with a lot of publicity, a pair of convincing blowouts over the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors and a devastating frontcourt consisting of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
The Magic won Wednesday by a score of 98-90 using a simple formula: Beat L.A. up front. Few teams in the league have the talent to execute such a brazen strategy, but Vucevic and his frontcourt mates—Jason Maxiell, Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O'Quinn—executed it to perfection.
The Magic lost the turnover battle (15-13) and the fast-break battle (15-8), but emerged victorious thanks to a 44-30 advantage in points in the paint.
Leading the way in that fight was Vucevic, who destroyed the more-heralded Clippers frontcourt to the tune of 30 points and 21 rebounds. So impressive were Vucevic's numbers tonight that ESPN's Stats & Info Twitter feed briefly turned into "The Vucevic Show."
Nikola Vucevic joins Kevin Love as the only players with multiple 20-15 efforts this season— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 7, 2013
Nikola Vucevic: 2nd career game with at least 30 points and 20 rebounds (other was in April against the Bucks)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 7, 2013
Dominating Early, Poised Late
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn had Vucevic and the other Orlando big men focused on taking away the rim and leaving Griffin and Jordan open from mid-range. Basically, they sagged off the Clipper bigs—particularly Griffin—and dared them to hit open jumpers.
The plan worked like a charm. Griffin did lead the Clippers with 23 points, but he needed 20 shots to get his points. Jordan was worse, shooting 3 for 10 from the field.
Compounding the problem for Los Angeles, their three-point shooters never got on track, shooting only 3 for 19 from beyond the arc.
The Magic rode their defense to a 57-42 halftime lead. How impressive was Orlando's first-half performance?
Clippers averaged 64 points in 1st half of first 4 games this season, held to 42 in 1st half tonight— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 7, 2013
But the Clippers are a veteran team led by a title-winning coach in Doc Rivers and a true floor general in Chris Paul, and they were bound to make a run in the second half. They wasted no time making that run after the break—in less than 10 third-quarter minutes, Los Angeles turned a 19-point Orlando lead into a six-point deficit for the Magic.
As the Magic struggled, it seemed like nobody on Orlando was capable of making a basket. Near the end of the quarter, however, Vucevic took matters into his own hands, getting to the line for two free throws and sinking a tough layup. By the end of the quarter, the Clippers' lead was down to two.
After the Magic regained a one-point advantage with 1:47 left in the fourth, Vucevic took over. He scored the last eight points of the game, six of which came via free throws. While most of the basketball world has focused on Griffin and Jordan's problems from the charity stripe, in this game Vucevic showed those two how it's done, sinking all of his free throws down the stretch, as the Magic held on for the victory.
Vucevic had this to say after the game, per the Associated Press (via ESPN), "The coaching staff keeps telling me to be aggressive on both ends of the court. I'm just trying to deliver for my team so we can get some wins."
Considered little more than a throw-in when he came to Orlando in last year's blockbuster Dwight Howard trade, Vucevic burst onto the scene in 2012-13, averaging 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds per game. And the big man looks he might be ready to take yet another leap forward this season.
Vucevic is averaging 17.8 points per game after tonight's outburst. According to NBA.com, he's third in the NBA (first in the Eastern Conference) in both total rebounds per game and offensive rebounds per game.
While Roy Hibbert most likely has one All-Star spot locked up in the Eastern Conference, there is a chance Vucevic can force his way onto the All-Star team as early as this year. Most of the league's better centers play out West, and incumbent All-Star center Tyson Chandler will miss at least one month with a leg fracture. If Vucevic keeps up his impressive start, he might be an All-Star sooner rather than later.