By John Denton Nov. 8, 2017
ORLANDO – Elfrid Payton scooped up a batted-out rebound and pushed the ball up the court with such speed that his floppy hairstyle bent back and faced the other end of the court. Within four dribbles, Payton was near the lane and let fly an alley-oop pass that Jonathan Isaac caught midair, but clanged off the rim.
Not one to ever give up on a play, the heady Orlando Magic point guard corralled the rebound and finished off the play himself with a layup that he kissed off the glass.
Suddenly, in one five-second burst of Wednesday night’s game at the Amway Center, it was as if all was right with the Magic’s free-wheeling, push-the-pace offense once again with Payton healthy and running the show.
Back in the lineup for the first time in 2½ weeks after battling a troublesome hamstring injury, Payton jarred the Magic out of a two-game slump with his speed and vision. When he handed out 11 assists and sparked the offense to 21 fast-break points, it gave the Magic more than enough firepower to beat the Kristaps Porzingis-less New York Knicks 112-99.
Afterward, each member of the Magic was quick to point out that Payton’s pace and pressure applied to the opponent with his speed and court vision was the key to the game.
``It feels good (to hear the praise) and that’s what I’m here for – to make everybody’s job as easy as possible,’’ Payton said. ``To hear that (praise) it feels good, but I’ve got to keep pushing it, trying to get better and continue to get all of them great shots.’’
Orlando (7-4) snapped its first two-game losing streak of the season behind the stellar passing and vision of Payton, who chipped in 11 points and six rebounds to go with his 11 assists in 29 minutes.
Payton played for the first time since the second game of the season (Oct. 20) when he strained his left hamstring on a drive to the hoop. He missed the past eight games because of lingering pain in the leg. Payton hoped to be back on Sunday after practicing the day before, but he and the team opted to wait until Wednesday in hopes of getting him fully beyond the injury.
On Wednesday, Payton needed just 32 seconds to put his imprint on the game by throwing a perfect lob pass to teammate Aaron Gordon for a thunderous dunk for Orlando’s first points.
``A sight for sore eyes – that’s what it was for me seeing Elfrid Payton back out there,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``We know that he and Aaron have great lob chemistry, so with Elfrid being back we put that in as the first play, for him to look for Aaron, and he executed it well. He just carried it throughout the whole game, really.’’
Orlando also caught a massive break when the Knicks (6-5) held Porzingis out of action because of ankle and elbow injuries. The 7-foot-3 power forward has taken advantage of no longer having to defer to long-time Knick Carmelo Anthony, averaging 30 points over the first 10 games of the season. That stretch includes seven 30-point games and two dazzling fourth-quarter rallies this week in New York defeats of Indiana and Charlotte. Porzingis scored 17 of his 28 points in Tuesday’s fourth quarter, but it came at a cost as he aggravated ankle and elbow injuries that knocked him out of Wednesday’s game.
Nikola Vucevic (24 points and three 3-pointers) and Gordon (21 points and four 3-pointers) were big beneficiaries of having Payton back on the floor and pushing the offense. The struggles of the previous two games were a thing of the past with Payton at the point and the Magic shot 53.8 percent from the floor and drilled 13 of 28 3-pointers in the game.
``Missing two point guards, that was tough, but it was so good to have (Payton) back, especially that first unit who is very comfortable playing with him because he knows everybody’s comfort zones and sweet spots,’’ Vucevic said. ``He got us all the ball early and put us in good positions, so it gave us a huge boost.’’
Evan Fournier needed just a half to tie a career-high in steals with five and finished with 23 points, five assists and the five swipes. Jonathon Simmons, who had been forced at start out of position at point guard in Sunday’s game, was back in his familiar sixth-man position and he thrived with 16 points in 24 minutes.
New York turned the ball over 23 times and Orlando turned those mistakes into 29 points. The Magic had a 21-4 advantage in fast break points and 29-21 edge in points off turnovers – categories where Payton made a big difference with his ability to push the pace and find teammates in transition.
The Knicks, which came into the game having won six of seven games, got 26 points from free-agent signee Tim Hardaway Jr. Former Magic guard Courtney Lee chipped in 12 points, while Doug McDermott added 13 points. New York shot the ball well enough to win – 52.5 percent from the floor and five of 12 from 3-point range – but it was undone by the turnovers.
Wednesday’s game ended a three-game home stand for the Magic and the team will leave on Thursday for a four-game, eight-day trip that will include stops in Phoenix, (Friday), Denver (Saturday), Oakland (Monday) and Portland (Oct. 15). That trip begins an arduous stretch where the Magic will play eight of the next 10 games away from the Amway Center.
The Magic started the season 6-2 by pushing the pace and leading the NBA in 3-point shooting. However, they dropped games on Friday and Sunday to Chicago and Boston when they were forced to play without point guards D.J. Augustin (strained left hamstring) and Payton. That bogged down the offense and caused their 3-point shooting numbers to careen.
Payton said he wasn’t fully sure he’d play on Wednesday until about an hour before tipoff. He wore a protective sleeve over his leg and rode on a stationary bike during times when he was out of the game to stay loose. He said even though he’s still far from being 100 percent physically he didn’t feel out of synch or rusty at all.
``No rustiness or real fatigue – not really,’’ he said. ``Kinda right before the game we decided I was going to (play), but I didn’t know there would be no minutes’ restriction. So much for that. … It’s still pretty tight, but definitely better than before. But I’m out there, so that’s all that matters.’’
On Wednesday, with Payton back in charge of the offense, the Magic kept the ball moving and found open shooters all game long against the short-handed and fatigued Knicks. And on the lob to Isaac, one that the rookie uncharacteristically botched, Payton credited his put-back finish to him simply wanting to see the play through to completion.
``I had somebody super-athletic like Jonathan running and I’m pretty sure there was a shooter running too and I was just trying to read that back defender,’’ Payton recalled. ``I knew that defender couldn’t jump with Jonathan and I was trying to give the rook some love. He missed it and it was just about me finishing plays and keep on playing. The ball came off and I was in the right place at the right time. That was just me having (energy) saved up and wanting to contribute.’’
Up four at the half, the Magic extended their lead in the third quarter behind some dead-eye shooting by Gordon and Vucevic. Gordon made three 3-pointers and scored 11 points in the third period, allowing Orlando to take an 84-76 edge into the fourth.
Vucevic had nine third-quarter points, but he and Payton were involved in one of the more comical plays of the night. When Fournier dished a pass to the wide-open Vucevic, Payton was so confident in the big man’s shooting abilities that he turned away from the basket and starting walking back up court with three fingers held aloft. The problem, however, was that Vucevic – a much-improved 3-point shooter this season – whiffed on the shot, leaving it several inches short of the rim.
As it turns out, it was the difference-making point guard’s only faux pas of a night where the Magic were delighted to see him back running the break.
``He got a good look from Evan and Vooch had been hot making some shots and I just felt like that shot was going in,’’ Payton said of the potential ``Not-Top-10’’ moment from Wednesday’s third quarter. ``I always think their shots are going in. I believe in them more than anybody.’’
On Wednesday, the feeling was mutual and Payton returned the strong belief to the Magic with his aggressive attacking, infectious passing and push-the-pace style. With Payton in the fold, the Magic feel they can get back to their winning ways from the 6-2 start to the season.
``Elfrid is really fast, quick, great handles and strong with the ball, so he just helps everybody on this team,’’ Gordon said. ``It’s great to have (Payton) back out there, but we still have things that we need to work on as a team defensively and offensively. But that (way they played on Wednesday) is a good sign. We’re going to continue to just get better.’’
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