The Magic will return to the court Wednesday night as the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions and two-time defending world champion Miami Heat come to town. Each of Orlando's next two games will be against the Heat as the Magic head south to play at Miami again Saturday night.
The Miami Heat will arrive in Orlando as winners of seven of their last eight after just a 1-2 start. The Magic, who are just 4-6 on the season, have been tough at home so far this year, going 4-2 at the Amway Center. The upcoming matchups between Orlando and Miami will pit the NBA's best team from a season ago, Miami, against the worst from last season, Orlando. Despite a 46-win difference between the teams last season, the Magic were surprisingly competitive against the Heat and a big reason was the play of Orlando big man Nikola Vucevic.
While Miami went on to win a franchise-record 66 games last season, the Orlando Magic had the second-worst season in their history, winning a NBA-low 20 games. On the court, however, the Magic gave the Heat all they wanted and more thanks to the play of Vucevic. Though the Heat won all four meetings a season ago, Miami still had no answer for Vucevic and the third-year center from USC could have two very big nights ahead of him.
It was New Year's Eve last season that Nik Vucevic first started to turn heads around the NBA. The Magic entered the contest with a 12-18 record while Miami was 20-8. Despite a huge edge in talent for Miami, the edge inside was overwhelmingly in favor of Orlando.
That evening, Nikola Vucevic scored what at the time was a career-high 20 points while grabbing a franchise-record 29 rebounds in what was just his 31st game with the Magic -- remarkable considering future Hall of Fame centers Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard played a combined 12 seasons in Orlando without ever grabbing 29 rebounds in a game.
Orlando clung to a late 99-97 lead before a Chris Bosh jumper with 35 seconds to play forced overtime. A steal and breakaway dunk by Miami's Dwyane Wade in overtime sealed the 112-110 victory over Orlando, but Vucevic's big night was a turning point last season for the Magic's young center.
Vucevic's monster effort came against a pretty maligned front-line for Miami, but against an upgraded frontcourt that included Chris "Birdman" Andersen later in the season, Vucevic was once again unstoppable.
In a March 6 loss in Miami, Vucevic put up another 20-20 effort. The Orlando center shot 11-for-16 from the field to finish with 25 points while grabbing a game-high 21 rebounds. Thanks largely to the effort of Vucevic, the Magic held an unlikely 96-95 lead with just seconds to play. Miami forward LeBron James would bail the Heat out with a last-second layup for a 97-96 Miami win.
Though the final game of the 2012-13 season was not as competitive, Vucevic had another solid night against Miami, scoring 20 points on 9-for-13 shooting while adding 13 rebounds in a 105-93 loss.
Vucevic would finish his first season in Orlando second in the NBA rebounding and as one of only eight players in the entire league to average a double-double. This season, Vucevic's second in Orlando and third overall, the Magic center is off to an even better start.
While Vucevic's rebounding numbers are slightly below his 11.9 per game average from last year, the Switzerland native is scoring nearly 16 points per game. Vucevic currently ranks fifth in the entire league in rebounding and fifth among centers in scoring.
After a 30-point, 21-rebound effort against the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this season, Vucevic seems to play his best basketball against the stiffest competition. While Miami's "Big 3" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will receive the most media attention, it may be Orlando's Vucevic who has the biggest impact in the Magic's upcoming contests against their in-state rivals.
Vucevic missed one of the four meetings against Miami last season, but in the three games in which he played against the Heat, Vucevic shot 63 percent from the field and averaged just shy of 22 points. Vucevic also averaged a remarkable 21 rebounds per game against the eventual champions.
While Miami has won three straight conference titles and two straight championships and is the odds on favorite to do so again, the weakness for the Heat once again is up front. With a frontcourt that, with the exception of former first overall pick Greg Oden, looks about the same as it did last season, Vucevic could be in for big efforts in the next couple of games.
After a hot start to the 2013-14 season, many in Central Florida have made the case that Nikola Vucevic should be Orlando's first All-Star selection since Dwight Howard. If Vucevic is looking to further that case, there is no better team to have a big night against than the Miami Heat as the basketball world will certainly be watching.
Mike Ferguson is a Central Florida native and an Orlando Magic contributor for Yahoo Sports.
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