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Playoffs 2019

NBA Playoffs 2019: Raptors' Marc Gasol showing defensive value in matchup with Magic All-Star Nikola Vucevic

The Orlando Magic have to feel pretty good about themselves through two games of their first-round series with the Toronto Raptors. Even though the Raptors made a statement in Game 2 by blowing them out by 28 points, they did what they were supposed to do by splitting the first two games in Toronto to steal homecourt advantage.

But there is one concern for the Magic as the series shifts to Orlando for Games 3 and 4: Nikola Vucevic hasn't been the player he was during the regular season. Whereas he led the team with a career-best 20.8 points per game in 2018-19, Vucevic is averaging 8.5 points per game in these playoffs, a figure puts him behind five of his teammates - one of them being Michael Carter-Williams - in scoring!

Vucevic's struggles didn't matter as much in Game 1, as the Magic got an outlier performance out of D.J. Augustin, but they'll need him to return to his All-Star level of play to have any hope of beating the Raptors in three of the next five games.

The fact that Vucevic hasn't been able to play to the high standard he set for himself this season is a credit to Marc Gasol. According to NBA.com, Gasol has defended him for 88 of the 114 possessions he's been on the floor in Games 1 and 2. He's shooting 6-for-17 (35.3 percent) against Gasol and has more turnovers (5) than assists (4).

MORE: How has Aaron Gordon fared against Kawhi Leonard?

It's matchups like these that the Raptors likely had in mind when they acquired Gasol at the trade deadline. While he doesn't have the foot speed to switch as liberally as some players at his position, he's built to defend more traditional centers like Vucevic, who generate the bulk of their offence out of the post. (Only five players scored more points with their back to the basket than Vucevic this season, making it his most-used play type).

You can see Gasol's value on these sorts of possessions:

Vucevic has a size advantage against most defenders he goes up again, but Gasol has both the strength to prevent him from getting to his spots and the length to contest his patented hook shots. He uses that strength to keep him in front and that length to force him into an ugly miss close to the basket.

It's a similar case on this possession:

Gasol makes it difficult for Vucevic to establish deep post position before receiving the pass and stonewalls him when he tries to make a move to the basket. Pascal Siakam then doubles him at the perfect time - once Evan Fournier has cleared out on the cut - leading to a turnover.

According to NBA.com, Vucevic had eight post-ups in Game 1. He then had four post-ups in Game 4, way down from the 9.2 he averaged during the regular season.

"A lot of that starts with Marc's physicality and his IQ," Nick Nurse said when asked about Gasol's defence on Vucevic after Game 2. "The biggest thing you got to do, not with Vucevic but with any really good post player, is try to push the catches out as far away from the basket so they're starting from a point farther away and that they're less comfortable, and their percentages obviously go down the further away you can keep them.

"I just think he played him real physical, played him real smart, didn't give him anything real easy and he did a great job on him."

With how well Gasol has defending Vucevic in the post, it'll be interested to see if the Magic continue to give him the ball on the block or if they try to get him going by involving him in other actions, namely pick-and-rolls. He led the league in scoring as the roll man this season and ranked in the top half of the league (61st percentile) in efficiency with 1.13 points per pick-and-roll possession.

That number is a testament to his versatility, as Vucevic is equally capable of popping and rolling. Gasol made it difficult for both him and the Magic's ball handlers to score in pick-and-rolls in Game 2, but putting Vucevic in more of those situations could help them get their offence back on track because it would free both him and Orlando's guards up for easier looks if he can punish the Raptors for showing high.

In which case, it might force Nurse to play Serge Ibaka more, who doesn't match up quite as well with Vucevic in the post as Gasol does.

We'll find out on Friday when the Magic host the Raptors in an all-important Game 3.

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