HOUSTON — Dwight Howard looms over the Houston Rockets’ arena these days. A massive picture of him adorns Toyota Center’s entrance off Polk Street and La Branch Street. Another photo of him decorates the arena’s parking garage.
But on Wednesday night, he didn’t play large on offense against his former team, the Orlando Magic.
Nik Vucevic can take much of the credit for that.
If a preseason exhibition can serve as a measuring stick for a player, Wednesday’s matchup was that kind of night for Vucevic. It offered a chance to evaluate his low-post defense against one of the sport’s most physical, most athletic centers. Vucevic played effective defense against Howard in the one half Howard played in the Rockets’ 108-104 win.
“I love it,” Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. “He’s got a bruise on his arm and underneath his eye a little bit. That means he came to play. You should go home every night with some sort of scar or scab or a Band-Aid. [It means] you came to play. He got a couple of bruises, and I love seeing it.”
Howard finished with eight points on 2-of-6 shooting from the field, and one of those baskets occurred on a fastbreak dunk off a lob from James Harden.
Vucevic, 22, exceeded all expectations last season, finishing second in the NBA in rebounding, but he often struggled to protect the rim. Some centers outmuscled him, and the Magic wanted him to improve his overall strength, explosiveness and lateral quickness during the offseason.
He showed progress against the Rockets (3-1). Vucevic held his ground against Howard, and Vucevic also altered some of Howard’s shots.
Vucevic set a tone early. He blocked Howard’s opening shot of the game, and he also fronted Howard well, denying the Rockets easy entry passes into deep low-post possession, where Howard is most effective.
“It tells me I can go against the best players in this league,” Vucevic said.
“I think I held my own pretty well. I think I limited him pretty well. Obviously, it wasn’t easy. It took a lot of energy to do it, but it showed me that I can do it. I’ve got to keep building myself, keep going and keep working. When I go against the best guys, it’s only going to make me better.”
Howard still possesses a limited array of low-post moves, so any defender must match Howard’s muscle with muscle.
Vucevic tried to do that Wednesday.
Vucevic finished with six points on 3-of-7 shooting and seven rebounds.
Howard and Harden played only the first half, and Howard may have felt tired from the Rockets’ recent trip to the Philippines and Taiwan.
Vucevic committed three personal fouls in the half, but the third foul was called late, well after Howard missed a short shot attempt.
“I like playing him,” Howard said. “I think he’s a good young guy. He has a lot of talent. He just has to play. It takes time. I’m looking forward to our matchup again. I’m pretty sure by then I’ll be in better shape, and he’ll be ready to play.”
Wednesday’s matchup featured none of the acrimony and tension of the Magic’s two matchups last season against Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jameer Nelson was the only former teammate of Howard’s to play Wednesday for the Magic (1-3).
Nelson and Howard had a highly publicized rift last season, stemming at least in part from Howard’s attempts to convince the Magic to upgrade at the point guard position before and during the 2011-12 season.
But Nelson and Howard talked on at least three occasions Wednesday night — once at the scorer’s table midway through the second quarter, as halftime wound down and after the final buzzer.
Victor Oladipo finished with nine points on 3-of-12 shooting. He had three assists and just one turnover.
Oladipo played alongside Nelson for several minutes, the first time they have been paired together this preseason.
Vaughn liked Oladipo’s on-ball pressure defensively and Oladipo’s activity in transition.
“I want him to be more aggressive, attack the rim even more,” Vaughn said. “I want him to think ‘aggressive’ from the time he laces up his shoes in the morning until the time he takes them off at nighttime.”
Oladipo had been a primary star in Orlando’s first three exhibitions.
On Wednesday, Vucevic likely made the strongest impression.
The young center passed an important test.
His bruises and the ice bag strapped to his right arm indicated that.
“That’s part of the job,” he said.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/magicblog and follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaBRobbins.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun