ORLANDO, Fla. — The Miami Heat are accustomed to being the unstoppable force instead of being largely powerless to stop somebody else.
That’s why it would be so devastating to the Orlando Magic if center Nikola Vucevic were to miss his third game in a row Monday night.
Vucevic has had at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in both meetings this season between the Magic and the Heat. Those numbers are a huge reason why, despite the chasm that exists between the two teams in the Southeast Division standings, the Heat’s two victories over their instate rivals have come by a total of three points.
But the illness that kept Vucevic out of the Magic’s loss Wednesday night at New York was diagnosed Friday as symptoms of a mild concussion resulting from when he was hit in the mouth Tuesday night at Indiana. That left coach Jacque Vaughn with little choice but to start rookie Kyle O’Quinn against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
O’Quinn, who never got in at all when the Magic faced the Heat earlier this month at Miami, finished with 11 points and nine rebounds in his first start. But it would be unrealistic to think he could duplicate the statistics of Vucevic, whose 29 rebounds Dec. 31 set a franchise single-game record and remain the most by anyone in the NBA this season.
“Whatever the coach puts you out there to do, that’s what you’ve got to do,” O’Quinn said. “I can’t predict numbers. I can’t say I’m going to replace Nik fully. I bring something else to the table.”
Though a couple inches shorter than Vucevic, O’Quinn has a comparable shooting touch from 15 feet out. His range was evident last March in the NCAA tournament, when his 26 points and 14 rebounds lifted 15th-seeded Norfolk State to an upset of Missouri.
But until the 97-89 loss to the Thunder, the second-round draft pick was among the few players on the Magic that Vaughn had never started.
“I didn’t go to him and talk to him and give him a big speech about starting,” he said. “We just said, ‘Kyle, you’ve got (Kendrick) Perkins,’ and we just went on with our regular shootaround.”
It wasn’t Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem or Chris Andersen who finally stopped Vucevic when the Heat rallied for a 97-96 victory. Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris all fouled out in the fourth quarter of a game when LeBron James ending up taking as many free throws as the Magic overall (12).
A similar discrepancy took place against the Thunder, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combining for as many attempts from the line in the final 1:40 (10) as the Magic took all game. On a team that ranks last in free throws per game, Vaughn has almost come to expect to get the short end of the stick.
“You control what you can control,” he said. “You keep going to the basket. You keep boxing out. And you let those other things take care of themselves.”
Based on the concussion policy the NBA put into place during training camps, Vucevic will have to complete a series of steps to show that he’s healthy and free of symptoms while the neurosurgeon hired to lead the program needs to be consulted. It’s a process that could take several days or even weeks.
In addition to what Vucevic is going through, the Magic learned Saturday that their leading scorer, guard Aaron Afflalo, will miss the rest of the season with an injury to his right hamstring. Afflalo went down in the second quarter against the Thunder, forcing Vaughn to go with a backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Beno Udrih for almost the entire second half.
No matter if it’s Udrih or E’Twaun Moore who opens in Afflalo’s absence against the Heat, it will be the 23rd different starting lineup used by the Magic in 71 games.
“He leads by example,” O’Quinn said of Afflalo. “He doesn’t talk too much, but when he talks, we listen. So it’s going to be tough with him not there on the court.”