Elfrid Payton Getting More Comfortable With Perimeter Shot

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By John Denton
March 22, 2016

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Some 25 minutes after his Orlando Magic had dropped another game in frustrating fashion on Monday night, point guard Elfrid Payton sat at his dressing stall staring blankly at the floor and with his full uniform still on.

Payton’s passion and total investment – both during the 107-96 loss to the Boston Celtics and afterward when the result hit him hard – were a welcomed sight for a Magic team eager to get their starter back in action and back in rhythm.

Out much of the past two weeks with a sprained right elbow, Payton’s second game back on Monday was infinitely better than his first. On the floor for 31 minutes against Boston, Payton scored eight points, handed out six assists and the Magic were a plus-one on the scoreboard while he was in the game. In the end, it wasn’t enough as the Magic lost another game where they were close – they were within four with less than three minutes to play – and the result frustrated the point guard.

``This has been hurting us all season,’’ Payton said wistfully while shaking his head.

Healthy for the most part and free from the rust that set in following his inactivity from March 9-19, Payton played well enough on Monday to put himself in position to potentially return to the starting lineup on Wednesday when the Magic (29-41) face the Pistons (37-34) in suburban Detroit.

The Pistons are in a virtual tie with the Chicago Bulls (36-33) for the final playoff spot – a position the Magic had sights on until a four-game skid dropped them to 7 ½ games back in the playoff race. Detroit, winners of three straight, were victorious on Monday thanks to a game-winning tip-in basket by Andre Drummond.

The game will also feature Detroit forward Tobias Harris and Orlando guard Brandon Jennings and forward Ersan Ilyasova playing their former teams for the first time since the the two teams made the three-player swap on Feb. 16. Harris was a standout in Orlando for parts of four seasons and he signed a four-year contract extension with the Magic last summer, but the team dealt him to Detroit following a six-week slide in January and the first part of February.

In 17 games so far with the Pistons (15 starts), Harris has averaged 16.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists while playing 33.1 minutes a night for former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy in Detroit.

Magic guard Evan Fournier, one of Harris’ best friends on the team, said it will be fun going against Harris – who was playfully known as ``All Business’’ because of his serious approach to basketball.

``I’ll talk to him and see if we can have lunch or dinner (on Tuesday) and talk to him, but once we’re on the court he’s just another guy,’’ Fournier said with a smile. ``Tobias is just a fighter, he plays hard and he’s a great guy to be around. … Tobias was great with me from Day One.’’

Ilyasova has been solid (8.1 ppg. And 5.7 rpg.) for the Magic, but Jennings has struggled mightily with his shot (35.3 field goal percentage and 31 percent accuracy on 3-pointers) and his consistency (7.5 ppg. and 4.1 apg.).

That could open the door for Payton to return to the starting lineup on Wednesday. Magic head coach Scott Skiles said on Monday that as soon as Payton was fully healthy, he’d like to get him back into the starting lineup. But that potential opportunity for Payton came with a caveat.

``We’ve said it many times,’’ Skiles said, ``when (Payton) is really, really turned on (with energy), he’s really effective; and when he’s not quite (as energized), he’s not as effective.’’

Payton was effective in Boston and looking much more comfortable than he did 24 hours earlier in a disjointed, four-turnover performance in Toronto. On Monday, Payton was using his quickness and vision to get into the lane, draw the defense and find cutters such as Victor Oladipo and Fournier for layups. One of Payton’s best plays of the night came when he dribbled along the baseline, reverse pivoted around a foe and flipped a no-look pass to Oladipo for a basket that got Orlando within 94-86 of the Celtics.

``We definitely have that familiarity because we’ve been playing together for awhile now and we want to keep building that chemistry,’’ Oladipo said. ``E.P. had been out for awhile, so it was so good to have him back and it was good to see him get his rhythm back so that he can finish out this season strong.’’

Payton is highly motivated to finish out the season strong after the transition to Skiles’ passing system and a couple of injuries have slowed him. He finished fourth in the voting for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award last season while averaging 8.9 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals a game. In 61 games this season – he missed four games from Jan. 4-9 with a bone bruise in his ankle and five games with the sprained elbow – Payton has averaged 10.5 points, 6.0 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals. His biggest areas of improvement are with his 3-point shot (26.2 percent last season and 37.2 percent this season) and his free throw accuracy (from 55.1 percent to 58.8 percent). A couple of big 3-point misses late against Toronto and Boston prove that he still has plenty of work to do, but Payton is happy with his progress.

``I try not to look at (the shooting percentages) just yet and just play the game every night, but I notice (his improved comfort level shooting the ball),’’ Payton said. ``I know all the hard work that I’ve put in and it’s paid off for me. That’s been a testament of my whole life, but I’ve got to continue to work at it and not be satisfied or content and keep moving forward.’’

While the Magic have fallen out of the playoff race of late, Payton said there is still plenty to play for this season. He is hopeful that a strong final month will be the spark that the Magic need to carry momentum into the summer and be in the playoff mix next season. He is hopeful that the team can snap out of its recent trend of coming up short in close games so that it won’t have to keep feeling the pain he endured on Monday night when he sat there in full uniform staring at the floor.

``I think I’ve had a pretty good year and I’ve improved on some things from last year. I just wish I hadn’t had to sit out so many games with injuries,’’ Payton said. ``I feel like my game is improving, but it’s just unfortunate because we’re not where we want to be right now as a team. We’d rather be right in the thick of the playoff race instead of the outside looking in. That’s the only disappointing part for me.

``Everybody on this team should want to finish out this season on a high note,’’ he continued. ``We need the momentum going into next year. I think that helped us this year when we finished fairly strong and it carried over (to this season when the squad opened 19-13). So we want to take this same mentality and keep getting better.’’

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