Elfrid Payton Returns for Magic; Kristaps Porzingis Out for Knicks

By John Denton
Nov. 8, 2017

ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic got good news and then even better news on Wednesday night about 90 minutes prior to even tipping off against the New York Knicks.

First, Orlando learned that point guard Elfrid Payton was fit enough to play for the first time since straining his left hamstring on Oct. 20 in the second game of the season. Secondly, the Magic caught a huge break when New York forward Kristaps Porzingis – the NBA’s second-leading scorer at 30 points per game – was ruled inactive because of ankle and elbow injuries aggravated in the Knicks’ defeat of the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday.

Payton, Orlando’s best player over the final 24 games of last season when he piled up five triple-double performances, returned to action after missing the previous eight games. Payton has had to endure a host of stops and false starts while dealing with the tricky nature of the hamstring injury. He practiced last Saturday only to feel lingering pain on Sunday. He worked out again on Monday and Tuesday, but still had tightness in the leg as late as Wednesday morning.

Magic coach Frank Vogel said that there would be no playing time restriction on Payton, but noted that the team wouldn’t overextend him in his first game back in 2½ weeks. Vogel said Payton’s sharpness and conditioning were there in practice, giving him no pause with starting the point guard on Wednesday.

``Quite frankly, I did not see (rust) from him in practice and he’s looked good in practice the last couple of times that he practiced,’’ Vogel said. ``But I do expect to see (rust) in the game because it’s a completely different intensity level competing against a live opponent. So, we’ll keep an eye on him.’’

Free from having to defer to Carmelo Anthony, Porzingis has been one of the NBA’s best players early in the season. Not only has he scored more points in the first 10 games of season (300) than any other player in Knicks’ franchise history, he’s racked up a NBA-best seven 30-point efforts thus far. Porzingis scored 17 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s defeat of Charlotte – but it came at a cost as he aggravated ankle and elbow injuries that have been bothering him for some time.

``He sprained his ankle early in the game (on Tuesday). It’s swollen and we’ve got a couple of days off after this, so he’s going to be out,’’ New York coach Jeff Hornacek said. ``I think he said he twisted it early in the game. He’s got bursitis in his right elbow, so it’s a combination of those two things. (Playing a second game in as many nights) had nothing to do with it; if he wasn’t injured he’d be playing.’’

VOOCH’S IMPROVEMENT: Nikola Vucevic, the longest-tenured member of the Magic, worked hard over the offseason to diversify his game – as evidenced by his vastly improved 3-point shooting.

What might be overlooked, however, is the improvement that Vucevic has made as a passer and a defender. Not only is the 7-foot center averaging a career-best 3.2 assists a game and fresh off a seven-assist performance in Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics, but his defensive importance to the Magic can be seen in some very telling numbers.

According to Stats Inc., the Magic are averaging 109.6 points per 100 possessions with Vucevic on the floor and just 98 points per 100 possessions when he is on the bench and resting. Those numbers also hold true when looking at the Magic’s opposition. Opponents are averaging just 97.3 points per 100 possessions when the veteran center is on the floor as opposed to 109 points per 100 possessions when he is out of the game.

``He’s a terrific two-way player and that’s what I love about him,’’ Vogel said of Vucevic. ``He doesn’t have a reputation as a bouncy shot-blocker, but he really understands the defensive end. He’s got great length and he uses it to get deflections and challenge shots and he’s got a great understanding of that (defensive) end of the floor. For him to be able to do that and grow his offensive game as he has, it’s no surprise that he would be a plus when he’s out there.’’

Vucevic, who is in his sixth season with the Magic, came into Wednesday’s game against the Knicks averaging 17.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.0 blocks a game. Additionally, he is making 1.7 3-pointers a game and taking 4.2 a night – both marks easily being career highs. He’s made multiple 3-pointers in four games already, including his career-best six 3-pointer, 41-point effort in Brooklyn on Oct. 20.

Vucevic said while the shot has opened up room for both himself and his teammates, he is noticing defenses treat him differently after he has expanded his shooting range out to the 3-point arc.

``I’ve seen it with (defenders) closing out more to me at the 3-point line,’’ Vucevic said. ``In the first two or three games, I was getting more open looks, but now it’s different. Even the way they are defending the pick-and-roll (is different) and it’s an adjustment that I have to make. I’ll get a better feel for it by watching film and figuring out how to get myself in better positions, whether that’s by popping and rolling or whatever works. I think (defenses guarding him at the 3-point line) is good for us because it opens up space for everybody else.’’

GAME WITHIN THE GAME: The showdown between the Magic and Knicks meant that Vucevic and former Orlando center Kyle O’Quinn would be together again. And any time the two friends are together it usually leads to some good-natured ribbing between them.

O’Quinn, a second-round pick by the Magic in 2012, played behind and alongside Vucevic in Orlando for three seasons. The Queens (N.Y.) native signed with his hometown Knicks in 2015 and the Magic refused to match the offer – a right that they had by virtue of O’Quinn being a restricted free agent at the time.

O’Quinn has been a valuable asset to the Knicks off the bench this season, averaging 7.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.4 blocks in 16.6 minutes a night. With Porzingis out for the Knicks, it meant that O’Quinn would see more time at center and power forward and have more time to chirp at Vucevic.

``There’s always a little bit said here and there. It’s Kyle, so he never shuts up and keeps talking forever and ever and says stuff just to say something,’’ Vucevic said with a laugh. ``He’ll still try to make it look like my English isn’t good. But it will fun to see him. He’s been playing well and I’m happy for him.’’

SEATS FOR SOLDIERS: The Magic and Harris Corporation teamed up on Wednesday night to honor military men, women and their families with ``Seats for Soldiers Night.’’

It is the 14th consecutive season that the Magic and Harris have worked together to treat more than 2,000 active and retired military personnel to free tickets for a game. Participating military outfits included Patrick Air Force Base, Orlando Marines, Orlando Army, MacDill Air Force Base and Greater Jacksonville Area USO.

On Tuesday, Magic center Marreese Speights and Community Ambassadors Nick Anderson and Bo Outlaw took part in a ``Commitment to Service’’ project revamping the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4287. ``Hoops for Troops’’ is a year-round initiative led by the NBA, its teams and players in collaboration with the Department of Defense, USO and other military and veteran-serving organizations to honor active and retired military personnel.

UP NEXT: Their three-game home stand complete on Wednesday night, the Magic now enter what looks to be their most arduous stretch of the schedule all season.

The Magic will leave on Thursday for an eight-day, four-game road trip with stops in Phoenix (Friday), Denver (Saturday), Oakland (Golden State on Monday) and Portland (Nov. 15).

After that, Orlando will play two games at home before heading out on another four-game road trip that will expand across the Thanksgiving holiday.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.