Two of the most productive centers in the NBA go head-to-head Monday night when the Orlando Magic host the Portland Trail Blazers.
Orlando saw a three-game winning streak come to an end in a 114-113 loss at San Antonio on Saturday, but not before five wins in six games had helped solidify its playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.
The Magic (27-33) will begin the week in the seventh spot in the East, a half-game ahead of No. 8 Brooklyn (26-33). The clubs still have two head-to-heads remaining, one at each site.
Former All-Star Nikola Vucevic has been playing back to last year’s form of late, with five consecutive double-doubles before missing by one rebound at San Antonio. The run includes two games in which he scored 27 or more points.
The 2019 All-Star with career-best averages of 20.8 points and 12.0 rebounds is now closing in on those numbers this season (19.1 points, 10.8 rebounds) as he also takes on a new role — team leader.
“You go through the draft process, and people ask you if you are a leader,” he told reporters recently. “Maybe I was in college (at USC) when I was a junior, and other guys were younger than me. But I’m not going to come in my (NBA) rookie year and yell at (Philadelphia veteran teammate Andre) Iguodala.
“(People) throw that (leader label) around, but that’s not something that you decide to be; it’s something you earn when you have the respect of your teammates. I just feel like I’m an established player now, I’ve been around a long time and my teammates respect me for the way that I play. So when I do say something, I think they are going to listen to it and respect it.”
Vucevic went for 23 points and 12 rebounds in a matchup with the Trail Blazers’ Hassan Whiteside when the Magic lost 118-103 at Portland on Dec. 20. Whiteside had comparable, yet transposed, numbers (10 points, 17 rebounds) in the win.
In his first season with the Trail Blazers, Whiteside’s season stats mirror those of the Orlando game. He’s been a better rebounder (14.2) than Vucevic, but not as good of a scorer (16.0). Whiteside also leads the NBA with 172 blocked shots.
But that’s changed some of late. In the five-game absence of Damian Lillard (groin), Whiteside has taken on more of an offensive role. He’s scored at least 16 points in seven straight games, including 21 to go with 13 rebounds in Portland’s most recent effort, a 129-117 loss at Atlanta on Saturday.
The loss was Portland’s sixth in its last seven games, a stretch during which the Trail Blazers have allowed an average of 121.7 points in the defeats.
Whiteside realizes it’s up to him to help remedy that. After all, he says, “I feel like I’m Defensive Player of the Year.”
The run of losses has negatively impacted the Trail Blazers’ hopes of making the playoffs in the West. At 26-35, they begin the week 3 1/2 games behind No. 8 Memphis (29-31).
The good news: After Monday’s finale of a three-game trip, Portland returns home for seven of its next eight. The Grizzlies are among those coming to town.
In fact, Memphis will visit Portland twice before season’s end, both times after which Lillard is expected to have returned from his injury.
–Field Level Media