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Sports Toronto Raptors aim to keep Vucevic in check as Magic series hangs in the balance

Nikola Vucevic has been missing in action through two playoff games against the Raps as the teams sit tied 1-1.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

So far in this playoff series, the Toronto Raptors have kept the Orlando Magic’s best player – a seven-foot NBA all-star – in check.

Centre Nikola Vucevic of Montenegro has had a career regular season, leading the Magic in points a game (20.8), rebounds (12) and field-goal percentage (51.8 per cent). The eight-year NBA veteran vexed Toronto in their four regular-season games, in which he averaged 20 points and 15.5 rebounds.

Yet Vucevic has been missing in action through two playoff games against the Raps as the teams sit tied 1-1. He’s averaging just 8.5 points and seven rebounds. Marc Gasol has been the starting defender on Vucevic, and Serge Ibaka has helped, too. The Raps have smothered the Orlando big man, and he has made just six of his 21 shot attempts from the field.

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“I thought I got the ball in decent spots in the post a few times, and they just double-teamed me early and it’s hard for me to create anything,” Vucevic said. “They’ve done a good job of taking away a lot of my strengths. I’ve just got to find a way to get it going offensively. I expected them to have a big focus on me. I’ve just got to look at the tape.”

The Raptors evened the series with a dominant 111-82 victory Tuesday night in Toronto, and it now shifts to Central Florida, where the Magic hadn’t made the playoffs since 2012. Vucevic was a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2012, and he hadn’t been to the postseason since then either.

Even as No. 7-seeded Orlando found a way to edge No. 2-seeded Toronto in Game 1, Vucevic hadn’t showcased his usual effective post ups. Gasol refers to him as “a very complete package.”

Pressed for more details on how he is containing Vucevic now that the series is two games old, Gasol spoke in much more vague terms.

“Studying their sets, studying his game, understanding how they’re trying to get him the ball. We do a really good job on pick and rolls, sometimes switching and helping me when he pops,” Gasol said. “It’s a good game plan.”

The Raptors have defended him physically in this series, and limited his touches. They have edged Vucevic out from the basket, so he is catching the ball farther away.

“Our perimeter ball pressure has limited his touches, as well. We’ve made it hard for them to get it in there because of the ball pressure on the outside,” Raptor coach Nick Nurse said. “Then when he does get it, there’s been enough good individual play and good team play to make him seem uncomfortable.”

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A top priority for the Magic coaching staff will be finding Vucevic opportunities to receive the ball closer to the basket, where he’s so effective – perhaps getting him more active on the offensive boards. However, the Magic coach also issued a challenge for the centre.

“There’s only so many things you can do,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said. “I’ll look at it, maybe there’s different places on the floor, but it’s a combination of things. A coach’s responsibility is to put guys in position where they can play best, but also, players have to figure some things out on their own.”

Games 3 and 4 are Friday and Sunday at Amway Centre in Orlando, where the Magic have not lost since Feb. 22 – a stretch in which they’ve won eight successive games. Seeing playoff basketball for the first time in seven years will make for a lively atmosphere – ripe for the team’s star.

“The best players – and I believe he’s been our best player all year – there’s just certain things they figure out as the series goes on,” Clifford said. “He’s a bright guy, he’s a very good player and I think he’ll figure this out.”

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