By John Denton Feb. 8, 2018
ORLANDO – Maybe it was only fitting that the Orlando Magic faced the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday – the day that the franchise traded away long-time point guard Elfrid Payton.
After all, it’s been the Hawks who have been one of the most flagrant franchises at exploiting Payton’s shaky shooting for years. So often, Atlanta defenders would back off the point guard defensively not just to disrupt offensive sets, but also to coax him to hoist shot attempts from the perimeter. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer admitted as much before Thursday’s game – one that Orlando ultimately captured 100-98 in a defeat of Atlanta – when he joked that, ``sometimes, we did want (Payton) to shoot it.’’
Orlando (18-36) won for a third straight time because Payton’s replacements – veteran guards D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack – continued their recent run of solid play. Evan Fournier scored eight of his game-high 22 points at a critical juncture of the fourth quarter, while Augustin (18 points, nine assists and two steals) and Mack (nine points, three assists and a steal) masterfully manned the controls from the point guard position.
``Those guys are solid, they know how to run a team and they’ve been two of our better players over the last three or four weeks,’’ said Magic coach Frank Vogel, whose franchise dealt Payton to the Phoenix Suns on Thursday for a second-round draft choice. ``We were a little bit out of sync in the first half, but we found some ground in the second half, got going a little bit, scored 61 points and those guys both played really well.’’
Orlando pushed its winning streak to three for the first time since Oct. 21-27. On this night, however, the storyline centered around Payton and the Magic severing a relationship that had been strong much of the past 3½ seasons. With Payton headed toward becoming a restricted free agent in July and his defense and outside shooting still sagging, Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman made the decision to move on from the team’s starter at point guard since the 2014-15 season.
Understandably, the suddenness of a trade hit hard for Magic players who had grown close to the likeable, affable Payton.
``When you spent four years with a guy, it’s tough to see him go,’’ said Fournier, who made seven of 14 shots, two of four 3-pointers and all six of his free throw attempts on Thursday. ``Especially when a guy comes in as a rookie and you see him grow and evolve, (it’s difficult). We’re going to miss him and I’m going to miss him, for sure. We have to move forward now.’’
Mario Hezonja, who had eight points, 10 rebounds, three steals and two assists on Thursday, has been Payton’s best friend on the Magic for nearly three years. While he admitted that it was sad to see Payton go, he added that the situation wasn’t completely dire because the point guard will get more of the playing time that he had missed out on of late as the Magic increasingly turned to Augustin and Mack. That, Hezonja said, might help Payton land the lucrative contract he is seeking in the offseason when he hits free agency.
Orlando will move forward with Augustin – a 10-year NBA veteran – as the starter and Mack – a seventh-year pro – as the primary reserve. In Orlando’s 10 games prior to Thursday, Augustin (plus-9.5 net rating) and Mack (plus-11.5 net rating) have played especially well for the Magic – winners against Boston, Cleveland, Minnesota, Miami, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Lakers since Jan. 16. To put the numbers for Augustin and Mack into perspective, Payton (minus-11 net rating) struggled mightily in the 10 games prior to the trade.
Augustin, the biggest beneficiary of the trade, admitted that it was difficult to see Payton be dealt away.
``Elfrid is like a little brother to me, man,’’ said Augustin, who played a season-high 35 minutes on Thursday. ``He’s from New Orleans and I’m from New Orleans, and we spent a lot of time together off the court. It’s tough to see him go. At the same time, the NBA is a business. I’ve been traded before and guys that I have been friends with have been traded. You’ve got to kind of move on, but at the same time I wish E.P. luck.’’
Orlando needed some luck in winning on Thursday after shooting just 42.4 percent from the floor and hitting only nine of 30 3-point shots. Atlanta, 17-38 after seeing its two-game winning streak come to an end, hit 43 percent of its shots and connected on 12 of 30 threes.
With Orlando trailing the Hawks 87-86 on Thursday night, Fournier converted a difficult three-point play as he was fouled and then followed that up with a deep 3-pointer – off a perfect feed from Augustin. Seconds later, he drilled a 15-footer to put the Magic comfortably ahead. The Magic would have to hang on because of two 3-pointers late from Prince, but they ultimately got the victory that extended their winning streak to three.
Orlando came into Thursday riding the momentum of victories over playoff-bound foes Miami and Cleveland earlier in the week. In that defeat of the Cavs, the Magic tied their sixth-largest comeback in a victory and they rode a career-best 34-point night from Jonathon Simmons.
Simmons, who was playing through a badly sprained right ankle, had 13 points in 34 minutes on Thursday. Marreese Speights chipped in 14 points and four 3-point shots off the bench for the Magic. Atlanta got 19 points each from Dennis Schroder and Tauren Prince.
Payton was in the midst of his finest statistical season in the NBA, averaging a career-best 13 points a game, while also contributing 6.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals.
Payton is Orlando’s all-time leader in triple-doubles with eight, racking up five such performances last season. He also was the winner of the Rich and Helen DeVos Community Enrichment award for the 2016-17 season for the work that he did in the Central Florida community.
With Payton being a career 30.5 percent 3-point shooter and possessing just a 61.5 percent success rate from the free throw line, teams would often go under screens against him and dare him to fire from the perimeter. Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks said as much last Saturday, while Budenholzer used lightly regarded defender Kyle Korver to check Payton in years past.
About 90 minutes prior to Thursday’s tipoff, Budenholzer compared Payton and Schroder. Budenholzer, long a proponent of small-ball sets and 3-point-heavy offensive schemes, agreed that it’s almost a must in today’s NBA to have a point guard capable of knocking down 3-point shots.
``(Three-point shooting) is certainly a big part of our game. To have a point guard who can make threes and be a threat from the 3-point line, certainly it’s helpful,’’ Budenholzer said. ``We feel like Dennis is going to be a good 3-point shooter but has hasn’t shot it as well this season as he’d like, or we’d like, but he puts a lot of time into his shot. Whether it’s Dennis, Elfrid or anybody, when you’re that fast and athletic and can get to the basket, if you can make threes on top of it, it just makes you tougher to guard.’’
As for the Magic, they will be back on the practice floor on Friday before hosting the superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night. The Bucks beat Magic 110-103 on Jan. 10 behind 26 points from Antetokounmpo.
While the Magic will certainly miss Payton’s speed in transition and his attacks of the rim, Vogel doesn’t feel that the Magic will need much time to adjust playing with Augustin and Mack. Both have become primary fixtures of Orlando’s offense of late and they should continue to provide the 3-point shooting and ball-hawking defense that the Magic have missed at times this season.
``D.J. is in his second year here and Shelvin’s played a lot for us this year,’’ said Vogel, who repeatedly thanked Payton in the postgame news conference for his play in Orlando. ``The rest of our guys are familiar with their styles of play and I don’t think it’ll be too big of an adjustment.’’
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