It might be easy to get Nikola Vucevic mixed up with Nikola Pekovic even if their first names weren’t the same. Both are Montenegrin centers who have been starting for middling NBA franchises and share similar skills in the paint.
Both are also off to solid starts, something they hope to continue Friday night when Vucevic tries to lead the Orlando Magic to their seventh straight home win over Pekovic and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
After averaging 14.2 points and 11.0 rebounds in 2013-14, Vucevic signed a four-year, $53 million contract extension with the Magic (1-4) last month. He’s lived up to the deal so far with career highs of 17.8 points and 13.0 boards per game.
The 7-footer finished with 17 points Wednesday but fell short of his fifth straight double-double with five rebounds, though Orlando snapped a season-opening four-game losing streak with a 91-89 win at Philadelphia.
Tobias Harris, tied with Vucevic for the team lead in scoring, had 18 points with the winning jumper at the buzzer. Still, the Magic are in the midst of working their way out of their worst start since opening 0-6 in 1990-91.
"Hopefully, it gives our guys a chance to relax after getting that one now," coach Jacque Vaughn said. "I’ve seen improvement from our guys from game to game. For me, that’s what I was looking for."
Pekovic is also coming off his best season, averaging 17.5 points and 8.3 boards in 2013-14. Since finishing with five points on 2-of-9 shooting in the opener, he’s played well with 16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game over his last three.
He had his second double-double with 16 points and 11 boards in Wednesday’s 98-91 win at Brooklyn. He converted a tiebreaking three-point play with 48 seconds left as the Timberwolves scored the final nine points en route to their first road win.
"That was the plan," Pekovic said. "That’s what coach (Flip Saunders) said. I’m glad the guys really believe in me and they start calling plays for me. Coach called something and Ricky (Rubio) said, `No, no, we give the ball to him.’"
Kevin Martin scored a game-high 26 for Minnesota (2-2), giving him 59 points with eight 3-pointers in his last two games. He’s hit all 17 of his free throw attempts over that span.
Top overall pick Andrew Wiggins had his best NBA game with 17 points. Rubio had a season-high 14 points along with 12 assists after matching a career high with 17 against Chicago on Saturday.
"We battled because I think that’s the culture we’re trying to establish," Saunders said. "Play hard, go out and battle every possession."
Rubio, who received a four-year extension last Friday, totaled 31 points and 21 assists as Minnesota split two meetings with Orlando last season.
Pekovic and Vucevic both sat out the Magic’s 100-92 home win April 5. Vucevic had the upper hand in the first meeting with 22 points and 16 rebounds while Pekovic had 11 and seven, respectively, but Orlando lost 120-115 at Minnesota in overtime.
Pekovic could be in line for another productive night against a Magic team allowing a league-worst average of 46.4 points in the paint.
The Timberwolves haven’t won in Orlando since 2008, dropping the last six visits by an average of 15.3 points.