Elfrid Payton Trying to Help Ignite Team Amid Slump

By John Denton
Dec. 21, 2017

ORLANDO – Stuck in the throes of a fourth straight season seemingly spinning out of control before Christmas even hits, exasperated point guard Elfrid Payton shook his head and repeated himself for emphasis on Wednesday night in the Orlando Magic’s sullen locker room.

``It’s really frustrating,’’ Payton said of a sixth straight loss that dropped the Magic to 11-21 in a season that they thought would go so differently. ``I’m not a loser! I’m not a loser!’’

The Magic certainly didn’t lose on Wednesday because of Payton, who responded to head coach Frank Vogel’s challenge that he do more in the face of the squad being hard hit by injuries. The point guard played with a fiery aggression in Chicago, contributing 14 points, eight assists, six rebounds and a steal in 30 minutes. Little did it matter as the Magic ultimately fell behind by as much as 30 points and lost 112-94 to the surprisingly surging Chicago Bulls.

Payton, a fourth-year pro, has certainly been through this sort of thing before, playing for Magic teams that have won just 25, 35 and 29 games. However, this is one of those cases where prior experience just makes everything worse. Understandably, Payton is sick of the losing and wants nothing to do with seeing this season sour like the previous three.

He had every belief that this season would go differently, especially after Orlando played well in the preseason and opened the regular season with a stellar 6-2 mark. Inexplicably, a skid that has seen the Magic drop 17 of their past 20 games started on Nov. 3 with Payton on the sidelines with a strained hamstring and it has continued even as he’s returned and posted solid numbers.

With things once again spiraling on the Magic, Payton desperately wants to see a correction in the team’s approach and its handling of the losing.

``I don’t know (how to fix it), but we’ve got to take (effort) out there,’’ Payton said. ``It’s going to be another long season if we don’t figure it out.’’

Up next for the Magic is Friday’s home game against the New Orleans Pelicans, a squad that they whipped early in the season for one of the best victories thus far. Upon rallying to beat New Orleans on Oct. 30, the Magic sat at 5-2 and completely unaware of how their season would turn for the worse by the next time they saw the Pelicans.

The Magic have been playing badly shorthanded for a couple of weeks now and the team is uncertain whether it will have Aaron Gordon (calf strain), Evan Fournier (ankle sprain) or Jonathan Isaac (a second ankle sprain) against Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and the Pelicans on Friday at the Amway Center. This much is for certain, according to Payton: The Magic can’t blame their lack of precision and effort on being without a few players.

``Man, no excuses and we’ve got to play harder, play better and have more attention to detail,’’ said Payton, who made seven of 13 shots on Wednesday and helped the Magic score 54 points in the paint with his drives into the lane. ``When you are playing undermanned, you just have less room for error. You’ve got to accept that challenge. … When you’re undermanned, you’ve got to do more – have even more attention to detail and that just wasn’t the case (on Wednesday).’’

The source of Wednesday’s added frustration for the Magic might have come from the team that they lost to. Chicago jettisoned veteran standouts Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo in the offseason to signal the franchise heading into full-on rebuilding mode. Fittingly, the Bulls started 3-20, but they have since won seven straight games. In the process, they have set some NBA history in becoming the first team ever to follow up a double-digit losing streak with a winning spree of five games or more.

If the youthful Bulls can turn around their season, the Magic should be able to do the same. Head coach Frank Vogel said as much before Wednesday’s game, complimenting his squad on being ``professional’’ and keeping the morale high. That wasn’t reflective in the team’s play, however, as the Magic never led and faded away in a dismal second half.

``They have (picked it up) at times, but not good enough tonight,’’ a frustrated Vogel said late Wednesday.

Payton did his best to help the Magic compensate for the loss of their two leading scorers (Fournier and Gordon each at 18.3 ppg.), willing Orlando through much of the early stages of the game. When the Magic trailed 12-0 early on, Payton helped them back into the game with four assists and three rebounds in the first quarter alone. And after the deficit swelled to as much as 16 in the second quarter, Payton got Orlando close again with a near triple-double numbers (10 points, seven assists and six rebounds) in the opening 24 minutes.

``When I get my opportunities, I’m trying to (ignite the team),’’ he said. ``I’m trying to get to the paint and kick it or be able to finish at the rim. As much as I can (spark the team), that’s what I want to do when I can.’’

Having gone through three straight losing seasons already, Payton knows full well that the Magic have reached a critical juncture. If they can somehow find a way to patch together some wins and nurse their key players back to health, the Magic still have plenty of time to make a playoff run in the pedestrian Eastern Conference. However, if they continue to lose – and do so in the manner in which they fell on Wednesday in the Windy City – Payton knows the squad could be out of the hunt before the turn of the calendar year rolls around.

``We know that we have talent in this locker room, but we’ve just got to put it together for 48 minutes, consistently night-in and night-out,’’ he said. ``It’s still a long season and guys are optimistic, but it’s got to start now.’’

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