Magic, Suns battle for little more than pingpong balls

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Two teams in the hunt for the No. 2 position at the NBA Draft
lottery meet up Friday night in Phoenix when the Suns host the
Orlando Magic.

The Suns (22-46) and Magic (24-45) will take the third- and
fourth-worst records in the league, respectively, into their
second and final matchup of the season.

Phoenix, getting a 17-point, 12-rebound double-double from
center Alex Len, prevailed 92-87 at Orlando in December during
the first meeting.

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The Suns enter the rematch playing the better ball of the two.
They split their past eight games, pushing themselves two games
ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers (20-48), who currently reside
in the No. 2 lottery position.

The Nets (13-54) own far and away the worst record, but the
Celtics own Brooklyn’s top pick. That makes Boston the
front-runner for the first seat at the NBA’s annual pingpong
extravaganza that will determine the draft order in June.

Len returned from a two-game absence due to a hip injury to
contribute six points and eight rebounds Wednesday in the Suns’
107-101 home loss to the Sacramento Kings.

The story of the game from the Suns’ perspective was point
guard Tyler Ulis, who got the first start of his career with
veteran Eric Bledsoe given a night off.

Ulis responded to his opportunity to record a season-best 13
assists to go with 13 points, notching his first professional
double-double.

Ulis is expected to be the club’s full-time starter the rest of
the season with the Suns having announced that Bledsoe will be
shut down for the rest of the year.

“We’re not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yet, but
we’re getting close to that point and we have enough young
players that we want to get them enough opportunity to play and
also save some wear and tear on Eric as best we can,” Suns
general manager Ryan McDonough said Thursday.

“We do a lot of the sports-science measurements, and looking at
those readings, Eric has some of the higher load numbers in the
league. We just didn’t want him to get worn down during a
season where we’re not going to end up in the playoffs.”

Bledsoe, 27, ranks second on the Suns in scoring at 21.06
points per game, slightly behind backcourt mate Devin Booker
(21.10).

If there ever were the perfect opportunity for the Magic to
begin resting key players, Friday night would seem to be it.
Orlando will be playing the second half of a back-to-back,
having gotten run out of the gym by Golden State 122-92
Thursday night in Oakland, Calif.

Then again, because of the nature of the blowout, Magic coach
Frank Vogel was able to keep his starters’ minutes down. No
starter played more than 25 minutes against the Warriors.

The only thing memorable about the game was that it was the
500th of Vogel’s NBA coaching career. He went 250-181 in six
seasons with the Indiana Pacers before struggling through this
season, his first at the Magic helm.

“Hopefully I can hang around .500 more,” Vogel said before
Thursday’s game. “It’s been a heck of a run. I’m very blessed
to be a head coach in the NBA. I’m very fortunate to have
coached so many great players throughout the years both here
and at Indiana.”

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