ORLANDO – It was anything but easy – something that rarely happens these days with most of their scoring out of action because of injuries – but the Orlando Magic finally got their offensive act together on Saturday in time to avoid the ignominy of losing to the woeful Phoenix Suns.
Orlando hit an unsightly scoring drought early in the night and struggled through a season-low 12 points in the second quarter before finally coming alive in the third period to take back control from the Suns. In the fourth, the Magic got big shots from Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic to spoil Elfrid Payton’s return to the Amway Center in a 105-99 victory for Orlando.
Gordon scored 29 points, Vucevic added 24 points and D.J. Augustin narrowly missed the first triple-double of his NBA career as Orlando (22-51) snapped a three-game losing streak and prolonged the agony for the Suns (19-55).
``We just came out (in the second half) with a little fire underneath us. We didn’t play hard or with enough energy in the first half and we let them being the Phoenix Suns be a factor in how we played,’’ admitted Augustin, who finished with 15 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. ``In the second half, we realized that if we don’t play hard they are going to beat us and we didn’t want to lose. We made the change.’’
Facing a Phoenix team with one win since the start of Feb. 1, the Magic incredibly found themselves trailing by 10 points in the second quarter and down eight at the half. Orlando scored more points in the third period (39) than it did in the entire first half (38) to take control of the game. Down the stretch, Orlando rode the shot-making prowess of the high-flying Gordon, who hit 10 of 18 shots, three of six 3-pointers and six of nine free throws.
Gordon’s 3-pointer with 3:03 to play gave Orlando a 99-92 lead and his reverse dunk seconds later put it comfortably ahead by nine.
On this night, Gordon’s career-best eight assists were as impressive as his 29 points, 11 rebounds and six high-flying dunks.
``It was a good, all-around game,’’ Gordon said. ``It’s a mixture and a balance of scoring and passing. If I score, I draw attention from the defense. And once I draw attention, then I pass. Then, the defense tends to leave me (single-covered) when I’m passing and I can score more. It’s a balance that I’m still working on as a young player, but my teammates are doing a great job of encouraging me.’’
Payton, who was playing his first game back in Orlando after he was traded to Phoenix on Feb. 8, once again didn’t shoot the ball well, but he helped keep the Suns within striking distance. He finished with 14 points, eight assists and five rebounds despite making just six of 15 shots and missing all three of his 3-pointers.
In pregame introductions, Payton was announced last and he was given a warm, but short ovation by the fans inside the Amway Center. Later, the Magic played a ``thank you’’ video for Payton, showing some of his best highlights in Orlando pinstripes.
``I didn’t see it the game, but I was in (the Suns’ locker room) earlier and I was able to see it and I thought it was nice,’’ Payton said of the tribute video put together by the Magic. ``I appreciate that (video) and I appreciate (the Magic.’’
Payton was the starter at point guard for the Magic for much of the past 3 ½ seasons from 2014-18. He racked up a franchise-record eight triple-doubles in Magic pinstripes, but never was able to make much of a sustained impact on winning because of his shooting and defensive struggles.
Payton’s best statistical season proved to be his last one in Orlando as he averaged 13 points, 6.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from 3-point range in 44 games. In 17 games with Phoenix prior to Saturday, Payton has averaged 12.8 points, 6.3 assists and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 44 percent from the floor and 22.7 percent from 3-point range.
Payton, who was approached by nearly every Magic player after the game, said that Gordon playfully held his arm one time during the game when he set a pick on the point guard. Payton said the one surprise on the night was that close friend Mario Hezonja (14 points, eight rebounds and four assists) didn’t talk trash to him, adding: ``I thought for sure Mario was going to talk trash to me, but he was pretty quiet for the first time ever in his life.’’
Added Payton, who met with Sixty Central Florida children who he sponsored to see the game for free following the final horn: ``(Being approached by his former teammates) means a lot and it didn’t surprise me. People ask me, `Do I still talk to any of the (Magic) guys?’ We still talk all the time. They support me a lot and want me to do well and the feeling is mutual. I’ve been through the trenches and lots of ups and downs and those types of things build relationships that last forever. They’re always going to be friends of mine.’’
Rookie forward Josh Jackson had 18 points for the Suns, while Alex Len scored 15 points off the bench.
Orlando shot 44 percent from the floor for the game and made 11 of 30 threes. The Magic were much more efficient in the second half (67 points, 53.5 percent shooting and 17 assists) than in the first half (38 points, 34.1 percent shooting and 12 assists).
Phoenix came into the night having lost 10 in a row and 20 of the last 21 games with the only victory coming against the 19-win Memphis Grizzlies. Payton admitted after the game that all of the losing he’s gone through in Orlando and Phoenix has continued to wear on him.
Said Payton: ``It’s tough, but I’m trying to find ways to turn it around. I’m staying optimistic, but this is my last year of going through this.’’
As if the Suns haven’t suffered enough already this season, their players, coaches and staff were forced to walk five blocks in the early-morning hours of Saturday when their team bus got mired among the revelers and traffic along Orange Avenue in downtown Orlando.
``It was late, and we were trying to go through downtown and I guess there are big parties here and we got stuck in the middle of people everywhere,’’ Phoenix interim coach Jay Triano said. ``The blood-alcohol level of the people who were around our bus was extremely high. We got stuck and we couldn’t move and everybody was tired from a late-night of traveling and everybody just got off the bus and marked right through (the crowds). (They walked) probably four or five blocks.
``I was in the group (walking) because I wasn’t going to sit on the bus all night and people were recognized for who they were,’’ Triano added. ``People chased Tyson Chandler and recognized Devin Booker. Everybody had backpacks and luggage, so you could tell we weren’t in the group.’’
The Magic were once again without prized rookie forward Jonathan Isaac (strained left foot) and guard Jonathon Simmons (wrist contusion), and veterans Evan Fournier (knee sprain) and Terrence Ross (knee sprain) continued to be out. Magic coach Frank Vogel said that the team plans to test Isaac’s foot in practice on Monday and Tuesday in hopes that he can play on Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets. As for Simmons, Vogel said that he is likely out at least another week from an injury that happened in practice this past Monday following a collision with Gordon.
Down eight at intermission following a shockingly poor second quarter, Orlando came alive in the third to storm to a 77-74 lead. Incredibly, Orlando had more points in the third period – 39 – than it did in the first half because of the shaky play just before the half. The Magic drilled 13 of 24 shots in the third (54.1 percent). Vucevic scored 12 points in the third, while Shelvin Mack had eight of his 14 points just after halftime to jump-start the offense.
As he was walking through the streets of Orlando in the early-morning hours of Saturday after the Phoenix bus was stuck in Orange Ave. traffic, Payton said he had several Magic fans approach him for pictures and autographs and to wish him well. Payton said he greatly appreciated the gesture from the fans – just as he appreciated his former teammates keeping in contact with him and his former team honoring him with a tribute video.
``Sometimes, people are still shocked (to meet him) and I don’t know why because I’m just as normal as them,’’ Payton said with a laugh. ``I had a couple of the guys come up to me and say, `Man, I’m mad that they traded you’ and stuff like that. Those types of things from the fans were pretty cool.’’
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