For all the signs of progress and encouraging stretches of play, the Los Angeles Lakers will not be able to escape being swept in a season series by the Orlando Magic. Sunday’s game followed a script eerily similar to their first meeting, with Nikola Vucevic starring in the middle and behind the arc.
When the Lakers began a three-game road trip in Orlando on Nov. 17, Vucevic torched them for a game-high 36 points on 15-of-23 shooting to lead the Magic in a comeback win. He also led all players with 13 rebounds and made two 3-pointers to help stretch the floor.
“Most of the schemes are pretty similar but it makes it much more difficult when he can step out and shoot the way that he can,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said prior to tipoff Sunday of strategizing to defend Vucevic.
“He’s probably a little overlooked. He’s a very, very good player,” Walton added. “From coaches to players who have to play against him, when you watch tape on him, he can score all over the floor and he’s a nightmare to match up with as far as scheming against him.”
The Lakers again got off to a strong start against the Magic before faltering in the second and third quarters. Unlike in the first meeting, L.A. did manage to make a game of it in the fourth quarter.
Playing but one mile from where he starred at USC, Vucevic poured in a season-high 31 points, knocked down three 3-pointers, made all eight free throw attempts and added 15 rebounds. He led all players in scoring and rebounding.
“He’s had our number this year,” LeBron James said after the Lakers’ disappointing loss. “Very good player. Does it both inside and outside. Just had our number.”
Rather than focus on his individual success, Vucevic credited Magic head coach Steve Clifford and teammates for finding him after he had it “going.”