The Toronto Raptors have managed to keep Nikola Vucevic quiet so far in the playoffs. Continuing to expose him on both sides of the ball will result in success for the team.
Heading into the playoff matchup against the Orlando Magic, the Raptors knew that their opponents and had talent that could do damage. D.J. Augustin was the man of the hour in game one, and Aaron Gordon had a nice night in game two.
Still, the Magic's best player has yet to get going in this series, and may not even have the opportunity to do so. Nikola Vucevic was outstanding in the regular season, averaging 20.8 points, 12 rebounds, and 3.8 assists en route to his first All-Star selection and a first-ever playoff berth with the Orlando Magic, who return to the postseason for the first time since 2012.
The results, so far, have been way below par for Vucevic, who has struggled to make any sort of an impact against the Toronto Raptors in the first two games of the series. A lot of that has been down to the defense of one man: Marc Gasol. While a large portion of the problems for Vucevic has been on the defensive end of the court.
Devising a gameplan to attack Vucevic's weaknesses has definitely been on the agenda for the Raptors so far, and it looks like they'll continue to attack him throughout the series.
Attacking Nikola Vucevic
With Vucevic on defense, the Raptors have been targeting him as often as they can. Not being known for his defense, Vucevic lacks the mobility of a defender like Myles Turner, someone who can move quickly laterally while also getting up to contest shooters.
His regular season defense stats replicate that. Vucevic has a defensive field-goal percentage of 54-percent from within six feet while giving up 50-percent overall on two-point field goal attempts. As a defender, expect Vucevic to drop deep into coverage to protect the paint and to dare shooters into taking midrange jumpers.
That's exactly how the Raptors have been attacking Vucevic so far. As a defender in this series, he hasn't been good, especially when tasked with defending Kawhi Leonard, who has averaged 31 points across the first two games of the series, shooting a highly efficient 72-percent true shooting percentage.
With Gasol as his screen man, Leonard has been allowed free reign after getting past the screen, and with Vucevic dropping deeper and deeper to protect the paint, Leonard is allowed to rise up and hit continuously from the midrange.
Not only does it leave midrange deadeyes like Kawhi free to do their business, but it makes defending the pick-and-pop that much harder. With Gasol, the Raptors have one of the best three-point shooting centers in the game. As a Raptor, Gasol shot 44-percent from three-point range in the regular season. In the playoffs, Gasol is 5-9 from three against the Magic in the playoff series and is once again causing Vucevic problems.
The Magic won't ask him to step out to the perimeter and defend three-pointers, maybe it's by design or maybe they are fearful of players attacking him off of the dribble. Either way, those pick-and-pop actions have been a nightmare for Vucevic and Orlando.
On the rare chance that Vucevic gets switched onto a perimeter player, it won't end well. Midway through the third quarter, Leonard got the switch against Vucevic on the wing. He slowly dropped back to the perimeter, dragging Vucevic back with him, and knocked down the three over him. Worst case scenario.
If the Raptors want to continue to expose Vucevic on defense, that should be the gameplan. So far they have, and it's worked.
Defending Nikola Vucevic
If attacking Vucevic on defense is the easy bit, then surely stopping him on offense will be the hard part of the gameplan.
Across the two games they have played, you really wouldn't think so.
In games one and two, Vooch has a combined 17 points on 6-21 shooting along with five turnovers in the two games. A lot of that has been down to the defense of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, and how they've contained him in his spots.
At age 34, Gasol is nowhere near as quick on his feet as he once was. But what remains is his fast hands and overall IQ. Basically, he knows where he needs to be on the court, but he just can't get there as fast as he used to. Dealing with a fairly immobile center like Vucevic, though, means that those weaknesses aren't as visible.
In essence, Nikola Vucevic factors into being an ideal matchup for Gasol.
Gasol has guarded his counterpart for a total of 88 possessions so far, holding him to 35-percent shooting from the field, and is the sole reason that Vucevic has turned the ball over five times.
A considerable amount of Vucevic's touches come in post-up scenarios, where he can use his strength and size to back into his opponents, opening the way up for cutters to attack the space or to hit hook shots over his defenders.
Vucevic averaged over five post-up possessions per game this season, and while the numbers aren't terrific, he averaged 0.93 points per possession when posting up, it's clear to see that it is still a strength for him.
That's been completely negated so far this series.
Obviously, it's only been two games, but Vucevic has averaged three post-up possessions per game and has seen his points per possession average plummet to 0.33 points per possession. An interesting wrinkle to add to that, his turnover frequency when posting up in the playoffs is 33-percent.
Gasol has the length and size to disrupt Vucevic when he's attacking in the post, and his fast hands allow him to snatch the ball or knock the ball away at opportune moments, or to even disrupt the passing lanes.
Basically, it's been a rough ride for Vucevic so far, and a lot of that is down to the defense of Marc Gasol.
Moments like this are exactly why the Raptors traded for the former Defensive Player of the Year, and if he can continue to dominate Vucevic, then the Raptors will continue to reap the benefits of the trade.