Vucevic Hopes to Return Sunday in New Orleans

Magic center missed 11th straight game with ankle injury
by John Denton

ORLANDO – Even as he speculated about his timeline for an eventual return to game action, Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic always figured that Sunday afternoon – instead of Friday night – was a more realistic target because of the length of time he had been out with an ankle injury.

As it turns out, Vucevic’s hunch was right and the Magic had to do without the services of their all-star center for an 11th consecutive game on Friday against the Houston Rockets.

``I think he’s feeling better and hopefully he’ll be able to get through a practice (on Saturday) and still feel good,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``I think there’s a good chance he’ll play on Sunday.’’

The good news for the Magic was the expected return on Friday of dynamic point guard Markelle Fultz, who missed Wednesday’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers with the stomach flu. Fultz was too sick to even attend Wednesday’s game even though he had purchased tickets for the players from his former high school basketball team, (DeMatha (Md.) Catholic). However, Fultz was back in the starting lineup on Friday against the Rockets.

With the lateral strain in Vucevic’s right ankle still healing and the big man still building his conditioning back to the levels that it was earlier in the season, the Magic made the decision to hold the big man out at least one more game on Friday. The target for the return now shifts to Sunday afternoon when Orlando begins a four-game, seven-day road trip in New Orleans against the Pelicans (tip time: 3:30 p.m. ET).

Vucevic, who has been out since his ankle buckled on him in Toronto three weeks ago, went through light practice sessions on Wednesday and Friday mornings and a non-contact practice on Thursday in hopes of getting back by Friday to face the Houston Rockets. Instead, Vucevic will practice with his teammates once more on Saturday and shoot for a Sunday return.

``He’s got to feel comfortable that he can go out and play, that’s it,’’ Clifford said. ``It’s as simple as that.’’

MAKING IT HARD FOR HARDEN: Houston superstar guard James Harden came into Orlando on Friday averaging a league-best 38.7 points per game. The league MVP from two seasons ago also entered following a game in Cleveland where he poured in 55 points – 20 of which came in the fourth period – with incredible efficiency. Not only did he make 20 of 34 shots and all five of his free throws, but he buried 10 of 18 threes to rally the Rockets in the fourth period. It was his fourth 50-point game of the season and he became the fourth player in NBA history to have multiple games with 10 made 3-point shots, joining Stephen Curry (15), Klay Thompson (five) and J.R. Smith (three).

Harden had a much tougher time racking up numbers in Orlando last January against the sticky defense of Evan Fournier and Wes Iwundu. In that 116-109 come-from-behind win for the Magic, Harden tied Kobe Bryant’s record for consecutive 30-point games at 16 by producing 38 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds on the game. But what was significant was the inefficiency that the Magic’s defense forced Harden into. By crowding him and pestering him, Orlando was able to force Harden into an 11-of-32 shooting night and he missed 16 of his 17 tries from 3-point range.

``He’s going to score points regardless, but you have to try and get him to shoot the ball with low efficiency,’’ said Fournier, who laughed at the notion that he had ``success’’. ``That’s really the key because he’s going to score. He’s going to get to the paint and make some of these step-backs, but the whole thing is about making it hard for him and making sure you don’t send him to the free throw line. And just make sure you don’t just give him easy stuff or he’s going to knock (shots) down.’’

One of the biggest keys to facing the scoring machine that is Harden, Fournier stressed, is having a short memory and continuing to fight defensively regardless of what happens on the prior possession.

``You definitely can’t get frustrated because that’s his greatness and that’s what he does,’’ the Magic guard said. ``The whole challenge is you can’t give up straight-line drives because that’s a layup, and on those step-backs, you have to be close to him enough to contest it. But at the same time, you can’t jump or he’s going to fall and it’s going to be a foul. So, you have to be extremely disciplined with him.’’

IWUNDU’S QUANDARY: Iwundu, who gave the Magic a nice lift off the bench with his defense in Wednesday night’s game, experienced a basketball first in his career when he was ejected from the game.

Following a post attempt by Dwight Howard and a hard foul by Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac, the Lakers’ center shoved back in the direction of Michael Carter-Williams and Isaac. Both Carter-Williams and Iwundu were irritated by that and the trash talk that ensued and shoved at Howard. That led to Lakers’ forward Jared Dudley charging the scrum and shoving back at a couple of the Magic players. Ultimately, refereeing crew chief Ken Mauer made the decision to hit Howard and Carter-Williams with technical fouls, while Iwundu and Dudley were tossed out of the game.

``That was just me standing up for my teammates, showing some fight out there, bring some energy to the building and get things going,’’ said Iwundu, who had six points, three rebounds, two steals and an assist in nearly 17 minutes of action on Wednesday. ``That could be a momentum changer for us. So, (the shove) was just an every-day thing and it was nothing new. I was a little shocked because it was just a little shoving and pushing, but things happen and those were the results and we’ve got to live with them.’’

That meant that Iwundu was forced to watch the final 7:06 of the game on a television set inside the Orlando locker room.

``That was a first time (having to watch on TV) and it was a little different,’’ Iwundu said. ``I joked with D.J. (Augustin) that I’m finally official (as an NBA player) now that I got my first ejection in a game. It was a different feeling, but it was just about me standing up for my teammates and trying to bring some energy to the game.’’

UP NEXT: The Magic will practice at the Amway Center on Saturday morning prior to departing for New Orleans to face the Pelicans on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET. That game is the start of a four-game, seven-night trip that also includes games against the Utah Jazz (Tuesday), Denver Nuggets (Wednesday) and Portland Trail Blazers (Dec. 20).

The Magic swept the season series from the Pelicans last season, winning 118-88 last February in New Orleans and 119-96 in Orlando in March.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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