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Vucevic leads Magic against high-scoring Blazers

After practice on Wednesday, Nikola Vucevic could officially celebrate his 28th birthday and his Orlando Magic teammates followed suit by serenading the center in song.

On Thursday, Vucevic and Orlando will get back to more serious business when it hosts the Portland Trail Blazers, who are opening a four-game road trip.

Vucevic has plenty to celebrate given his quick start through four games. He is nearly averaging a double-double with 17 points and 9.7 rebounds.

He had a triple-double with 27 points, 13 rebounds and a career-high 12 assists on Saturday in a one-point loss at Philadelphia and followed it up with 24 and 12 rebounds in a wire-to-wire, 93-90 win at Boston that was decided when the Celtics missed two 3-point attempts in the final seconds.

"We definitely held our breath," Vucevic said. "Once it hit the rim and I looked at the clock, it was almost over and I was like: 'Alright, we're good.'"

New coach Steve Clifford hasn't been forced to worry about Vucevic's play in the early going.

So far, he is shooting 55.4 percent and has made 5 of 6 3-pointers as he continues to become the latest in a line of big men to expand their games to the 3-point line. Vucevic also is averaging 5.3 assists in the early going, a point that did not go unnoticed by Clifford.

"Everybody talks about range-shooting bigs. The second piece is the passing," Clifford told reporters in Boston. "What a range shooter does is create space to cut into and then when you have a guy like him who can make the passes into those types of cuts, it's an added dimension to your offense and it's obviously one we need to learn to utilize as much as we can."

More importantly than Vucevic's individual's numbers was how Orlando responded after a humbling 120-88 home loss to Charlotte six days ago. While they did not win the next two games, the Magic received some other effective showings.

Jonathan Issac, whose rookie season was hampered by ankle issues, totaled 18 and 12 rebounds Monday in Boston while playing 26 minutes. Both totals were career highs and he also helped shut down Boston's Jayson Tatum.

"He's a talented guy, he has a high IQ and he's working hard," Clifford said Monday "You can see the progress from him, and you saw it in Summer League when he was very good, and he's continued to get better."

Orlando will be hoping to continue an effective defensive showing after forcing the Celtics to miss 18 of 23 3-pointers. The Magic will attempt to do so against one of the top backcourts in the league in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Lillard is 7 of 23 from 3-point range (30.4) percent while McCollum is at 36.4 percent (8 of 22). Overall, Lillard is shooting 43.9 percent (25 of 57) while McCollum is at 35.1 percent (20 of 57).

Neither player shot well when Portland made 39.8 percent from the floor in a 125-124 overtime loss to the Washington Wizards on Monday.

Lillard led the Trail Blazers with 29 points as he shot 7 of 21 and missed eight of 10 3-pointers. McCollum was held to 13 points as he shot 5 of 25 and missed nine of 10 3-pointers.

Ultimately, the Blazers were done in by shoddy defense, especially against Washington's Markieff Morris, who hit six 3-pointers.

"The kind of effort we had, we put ourselves in position to win the game," Lillard said. "We just didn't execute, on the defensive end or the offensive end, as good as we needed to win it. That's frustrating."

Portland has scored at least 120 points in its first three games for the first time in team history, and while the Blazers go through Orlando, Miami, Indiana and Houston, they will look to improve some areas such as the 22.3 assists per game.

While Lillard and McCollum are off to slow shooting starts, reserve Nik Stauskas and Jusuf Nurkic are off to quick starts. Stauskas is averaging 14 points after getting 15 points Monday and Nurkic is averaging a double-double (16.7 points, 11.7 rebounds) after totaling 22 and 18 Monday.

Portland has won the last three meetings with Orlando after getting a pair of single-digit wins last season.

Updated October 24, 2018

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