The last time he faced the Houston Rockets, Nikola Vucevic suffered a knee injury that sidelined him before spending much of November in coach Scott Skiles’ dog house.
Though the Magic could be without Elfrid Payton, Vucevic now seems to have hit his stride entering Wednesday night’s home matchup with former Orlando star Dwight Howard.
Vucevic sprained his knee in a 119-114 overtime loss at Houston on Nov. 4 and missed the following three games. Once he returned, the center had a difficult time getting back in the good graces of Orlando’s defensive-minded first-year coach.
Skiles benched Vucevic for the entire second half of a 104-101 home win over Minnesota on Nov. 8 in the first of a five-game stretch in which he played less than 25 minutes four times.
Vucevic, however, has certainly earned a larger role of late, returning to the form that led him to a team-high 19.3 points per game last season. He’s averaged 23.7 to go with 10.3 rebounds in his last three while playing at least 33 minutes in each.
The 7-footer finished with a season high-tying 26 points and nine rebounds in Monday’s 107-99 win at New York. He came up big with some key late buckets to help Orlando (16-12) bounce back from Sunday’s 103-100 home loss against Atlanta with its fourth win in five games.
"I know the work that I put in every day and I come into every game believing in what I do," Vucevic told the team’s official website. "And when you add to that the belief of your teammates, it only boosts your confidence up even more."
Payton played just nine minutes before going down with a left ankle injury. The starting point guard, who is questionable, had averaged 15.5 points over his previous four contests.
Victor Oladipo had 32 points and Vucevic contributed 25 with 12 rebounds in a 120-113 win over the Rockets on Jan. 14 in the most recent meeting at the Amway Center. However, it marks the Magic’s only victory in this series over the past seven matchups.
James Harden finished with 28 points against the Magic last month, sinking 14 of 17 from the free-throw line. The All-Star guard, though, has shot a combined 10 for 36 (27.8 percent) from the field in Houston’s two straight victories in the series.
Harden scored 36 while hitting 16 of 19 from the foul line in Monday’s 102-95 home win over Charlotte. After totaling 38 points and 29 rebounds in his previous two games, Howard fouled out with just nine and nine while committing five turnovers.
Howard, who spent his first eight seasons with Orlando, made all 10 of his field-goal attempts on the way to 23 points and 14 rebounds in the November meeting. The eight-time All-Star has averaged 24.2 points and 14.7 boards in six games against his former team.
The Rockets (15-14) seek a season high-tying fourth straight win after allowing 93.0 points per game and a 39.1 field-goal percentage in their last three. They had been giving up an average of 107.1 on 47.0 percent heading into that stretch.
"We’ve just got to keep this thing rolling," Howard said. "I think our defense has been excellent. … We just have to continue to do that. Offense, we shouldn’t have to worry about."
Ty Lawson is eligible to return from a two-game suspension for a January drunken-driving case in Colorado.