By John Denton Nov. 11, 2017
DENVER – Statistics, particularly the wave of advanced analytics that have swept through the NBA in recent years, can sometimes be misleading or misrepresentative of trends for certain teams.
However, when you delve deep into the analytics regarding Elfrid Payton’s impact on the Orlando Magic, the point guard’s difference-making effectiveness is undeniable.
First, there’s this: When Payton has played with starters Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross this season, that grouping has had an offensive rating of 130.6 points scored per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 102.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. That whopping plus-28-point net rating is one of the Magic’s best and it gives clear proof as to how dominant Orlando has been with their floppy-haired point guard on the floor.
Then, there’s a far less complicated stat that shows exactly what Payton means to the Magic: They are 3-0 this season when he finishes games.
With Payton’s importance fully in focus, the Magic made the prudent decision to rest their hobbled point guard on Saturday. They paid dearly for that decision – to the tune of a 125-107 loss to the surging Denver Nuggets – but the key factor to remember is that Payton will soon be back on the floor and impacting the Orlando offense as only he can.
The Magic (8-5) lost for a third time this season when they were without either Payton or primary backup point guard D.J. Augustin (strained left hamstring). Shelvin Mack (seven points and eight assists in 24 minutes) started on Saturday and was hardly to blame for the defeat, but the loss of Payton was particularly noticeable a night after Orlando won 128-111 in Phoenix with him running the offense.
``That’s the third time now they we lose by 20 and it’s not a coincidence that we’ve had D.J. and E.P. out (in those three games),’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who made seven of nine shots and scored 18 points. ``Obviously, that changes a lot for us and it changes (Jonathon) Simmons coming off the bench. But the bottom line (on Saturday night) was that we came out flat and with a lack of intensity. And they started off great and picked us apart. It was one of those nights where it felt like we were late on everything.’’
The Magic were playing for a second time in as many nights, while the Nuggets (8-5) were rested and ready – and it showed on both accounts. Orlando yielded 70 points and nine 3-pointers in the game’s first 24 minutes and a large chunk of them came from Denver point guard Jamal Murray (32 points and six 3-pointers for the game). Things got better in the second half as Denver’s offense cooled off, but wasn’t enough to stop the Nuggets from beating the Magic for a third straight time.
Orlando trailed by as much as 30 points in the third quarter, but it actually put a brief scare into Denver with a late charge by the reserves. The Magic got it to 104-91 early in the fourth, but they could get no closer because of more defensive struggles.
``Not good enough on that (defensive) end,’’ said Magic coach Frank Vogel, who sent double teams at Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap in hopes Denver would miss from 3-point range. ``Credit the Nuggets because they played a terrific offensive game and had us on our heels.’’
Payton stayed back in the locker room throughout the game – one, because he didn’t have a sport coat to wear on the bench and secondly because he despises missing games. ``It’s super frustrating, and I really wanted to be out there tonight as much as possible to help my team, but I’ve just got to listen to the docs,’’ he said. ``They don’t pay me to make those decisions, but I trust them, so that’s what I’m rolling with. I’m not really concerned (about the injury).’’
The ugly, predictable loss ended the Magic’s unprecedented run of success against the Western Conference. A night earlier after a 128-112 thumping of Phoenix, Orlando moved to 4-0 overall and 3-0 on the road against teams from the rugged Western Conference. That road run to open the season versus the West had never happened before for the Magic. That it ended on Saturday in something of a ``schedule loss’’ for the Magic wasn’t shocking in the least bit.
``These games, there are so many factors that go into it with us being on a back-to-back and on a road trip and it’s hard to get yourself up and mentally going,’’ admitted 20-year-old rookie Jonathan Isaac, who suffered a sprained ankle late in the game. ``I just don’t think we were there all the way tonight. We played flat and we tried to back it up with some urgency but it wasn’t enough.
``Honestly, this is the first back-to-back where I could sense the fatigue,’’ added Isaac (two points, four rebounds and two blocks), who had X-rays on his ankle post game and they were negative for major damage. ``We had (two other back-to-backs) where we lost the first one and then won the second game (in Cleveland and New Orleans). But, today, before the game I was like, `I can get myself going, but I don’t feel all the way there. There were a lot of factors, and they definitely came out with more juice than we did.’’
Aaron Gordon chipped in 13 points for the Magic. Gordon entered the game first in the NBA in 3-point shooting (59.5 percent), but he connected on just one of five tries from beyond the arc on Saturday.
Simmons, Orlando’s best reserve all season, scored 18 points off the bench, while Marreese Speights once again showed his effectiveness in relief by pouring in 19 points in 18 minutes.
Denver closed out a six-game home stand at 5-1 with victories over Toronto, Miami, Brooklyn, OKC and Orlando. The Nuggets shot 52.9 percent from the floor and drilled 12 of 29 3-point shots to stay comfortably ahead from the 3:30 mark of the first quarter to the end of the game.
Orlando shot the ball well enough to stay in the game (47.1 percent) and made 11 threes, but it simply couldn’t overcome the defensive woes against the hot-shooting Nuggets. Will Barton, who started in place of the injured Gary Harris (shoulder injury), scored 26 points and hit four 3-pointers. Jokic, a rising star because of his all-around talents, gave the Nuggets 12 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists, while Millsap chipped in 16 points.
Payton missed his ninth game of the season because of lingering pain in his left hamstring. The Magic did not want Payton to overwork his still-healing hamstring and have a setback while playing on the second night of the back-to-back set of games. He originally suffered the injury on Oct. 20 midway through the second game of the season and missed the next eight. He played exceptionally well in his return on Wednesday (11 points and 11 assists) and was solid on Friday in Phoenix (eight points and seven assists) despite foul trouble.
``Our season speaks to how important our point guards are to us and how point guards are with us moving the ball,’’ Isaac noted. ``E.P. plays one game and we’re slinging it all over and we’re back to ourselves. Then, tonight (without Payton), we had the slow start moving the ball. So when E.P. gets back hopefully for this next game, we’ll go to battle.’’
After playing Friday in Phoenix and Saturday in Denver, Orlando will get a much-needed day of rest on Sunday. The Magic will need that time to prepare themselves for the surging Golden State Warriors on Monday night at noisy Oracle Arena.
Two nights later, Orlando will wrap up its four-game swing through the Western Conference in Portland against the Trail Blazers.
Down 70-47 at the half, things only got worse in the third period as Denver surged to a 30-point advantage. Magic head coach Frank Vogel pulled his starting five with 3:57 to play in the third period, turning the game over to the reserves.
Playing for a second time in as many nights, the Magic were a step slow defensively and lost in finding shooters in an ugly first half that left them trailing 70-47 at intermission.
The final outcome was far from what the Magic hoped for and undoubtedly it was shaped by Orlando’s decision to play without Payton running the show. Still, Vogel knows the Magic made the right decision to rest the point guard and his balky hamstring because of the importance of having him throughout the 6 ½-month regular season.
``That’s why we did it,’’ Vogel said of taking a macro approach to Payton’s long-term health. ``You’ve got to be smart and listen to your medical team and understand that it’s an 82-game marathon.’’
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