The Orlando Magic and host Phoenix Suns each will offer a different look in the middle when they meet in the rematch of a December contest on Friday night.
The Magic has Nikola Vucevic back from an ankle injury while the Suns’ Deandre Ayton has returned from a suspension since the clubs met in Orlando five weeks ago, a game the Magic won 128-114.
Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac and Phoenix’s Frank Kaminsky were the starting centers in that offensive-oriented affair, and they’ve since gotten injured — Isaac with a sprained left knee, Kaminsky with a right patella stress fracture. Neither will be available in even a backup role Friday night.
Vucevic sat out 11 games with his injury and has quickly made up for lost time. He has averaged 20.2 points and 10.8 rebounds in 13 games, including seven double-doubles.
The Magic, who fell as much as five games under .500 last month, have gone 7-6 since Vucevic’s return and now reside in second place in the Southeast, just two games under .500.
“We’re playing well right now. It’s about building (momentum),” key reserve Terrence Ross said after Wednesday’s 123-89 blowout win over Washington, the club’s second straight win and fourth in its last five games. “We’re trying to get it steamrolling so we can kind of get back to .500 and kind of make a jump in the standings.”
Even without Vucevic, the Magic dominated the boards in the earlier head-to-head with the Suns, outrebounding the visitors 45-29.
That was due in part to Phoenix missing its top two big men — Ayton and Aron Baynes — both of whom have not only returned but now start in tandem.
The new look hasn’t exactly sparked an upward trend for the Suns, who allowed 54.2-percent shooting by Memphis and 41.7-percent accuracy on 3-pointers by Sacramento in consecutive home losses earlier this week.
The Suns had hoped to take advantage of a five-game homestand comprised of all sub-.500 teams. Instead, they’ve gone 1-2, with Orlando and Charlotte still to go.
Ayton, who also missed time with an ankle injury, has played just seven games this season, including the last five. He had a season-best 21 points in Wednesday’s 114-103 loss to the Kings, and missed his fourth consecutive double-double by just one rebound.
He expects better days ahead.
“Still getting back in rhythm,” he noted before Wednesday’s game. “Not saying I’m all the way there yet, but once you get in between those lines, it’s time to hoop.”
That’s exactly what Suns guard Devin Booker has been doing during a franchise-best run of seven straight 30-point games, which included a 40-point explosion Monday against the Grizzlies.
Booker was held to 17 points, the third-fewest in his last 17 games, in the loss at Orlando.
Friday’s game also will feature a homecoming of sorts for the Magic’s Aaron Gordon, a former college standout at the University of Arizona.
Gordon has scored 22, 18 and 17 points in his last three visits to Phoenix, helping Orlando win all three.
He had a game-high 32 points in the December meeting in Orlando.
–Field Level Media