Stout defense, Nikola Vucevic's strong offense a winning recipe for Magic
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Nikola Vucevic began the season by grabbing 23 rebounds in a game the Orlando Magic lost.
He headed into the NBA's lengthiest All-Star break ever by pulling down 18 more in an all-too-rare Magic victory.
The league's seventh-leading rebounder helped out in more areas than that Wednesday night. Not only did Vucevic have a game-high 28 points in an 89-83 win over the downtrodden New York Knicks, but six of those also came during a 12-2 run when the Magic went ahead to stay.
It was his second 18-rebound showing of the season against the Knicks. But this one felt better to him because the Magic held the Knicks to 36 second-half points rather than somehow giving up 113 to them for an entire game.
"We couldn't really get much going offensively," Vucevic said of a second quarter when the Magic scored only 17 points and turned the ball over nine times. "And we were able to stop them, and that's what got us the win. That's what we have to do moving forward."
Excluding Vucevic, the Magic's starters were a combined 11 of 28 from the floor. But due to a combination of a better effort on defense and an opponent that has become a butt of jokes, the Magic were able to pull through.
"We played well for the most part defensively," Vucevic said. "That's what allowed us to win. It wasn't the prettiest game."
"We're so proud of Nik," interim coach James Borrego said after the Magic's fourth straight game of holding a team to fewer than 100 points. "He's playing so much more consistently than he has in the past on both ends of the floor. I know he's not a shot-blocker or a rim-protector. But the kid competes defensively. He rebounds the ball. He plays unselfishly. He's a threat for us inside. He makes his mid-range jumper consistently. And we're going to play through him."
Averages of 19.6 points and 11.3 rebounds a game would usually be good enough to earn someone a trip to the All-Star Game. But the Magic's 17-39 record clearly worked against Vucevic. Unless Anthony decides he's capable of playing Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, the only Eastern Conference player from a losing team will be the Miami Heat's Chris Bosh.
The 24-year-old Vucevic has no problem with that.
"I always had some hopes that maybe there was going to be a call for me to go up to New York," he said. "But it didn't happen. And that's OK. I'm still young. I still have a lot of time for me in the future to get to All-Star Games."
And in a conference where only six of the 15 teams have winning records, Vucevic doesn't consider it farfetched that the Magic could make an impact over their final 26 games.
"It's time for us to make a run, put up a winning streak," he said. "Everybody wants to put up a better showing out there. Nobody's happy with the record we have. We know we have a better team and more talent than our record is showing. So this break is going to be good for us."
Unfortunately for the Magic, their only remaining meeting with the Knicks isn't until April 11. The good news for them is that Vucevic might have found someone to supply the defensive ying to his offensive yang in Dewayne Dedmon.
After not playing at all off the bench in Borrego's coaching debut, Dedmon has averaged 18 bone-jarring minutes in the past three games. His six blocked shots against the Knicks were the most by any Magic player all season.
"Dewayne was fantastic," Borrego said. "I think he changed the entire complexion of the game."
"Yeah, I was wondering how many shots he blocked," Vucevic added. "He makes a big difference just being out there, being active."
But after a week of upheaval, Borrego and his players could use some time off before starting a stretch where six of their next seven games are at home.
"I'm going to enjoy some time with my family," he said. "I'm going to enjoy my kids. I have not seen them much, so I'm just going to love on them and squeeze them a little bit. And get some work done. We still have a lot of games to play."