By John Denton
Oct. 21, 2017
CLEVELAND – There are few things in basketball that Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton dislikes more than missing games – something he never did in high school, college and in two of his first three NBA seasons.
Unfortunately for Payton, he might have to get used to the bad vibes that come with being out of action after straining his hamstring on Friday.
Payton suffered the injury on a layup attempt in the second quarter of Friday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets and did not return in the second half. A MRI on Saturday showed what Magic coach Frank Vogel called a “mild to moderate strain.’’ That could result in Payton missing multiple games just as the Magic were hoping to ride his play to a fast start to the season. Next week, the Magic host Brooklyn (Tuesday) and San Antonio (Friday) and Payton’s status for those games is very much up in the air.
“I’m still blessed because there have been a lot of worse injuries in the season so far,’’ Payton said, referring to season-ending injuries to Boston’s Gordon Hayward (dislocated ankle) and Brooklyn’s Jeremy Lin (patellar tendon tear). “I’m blessed that I’m going to be able to come back and not miss a lot of time.’’
Payton, Orlando’s best player over the final 24 games of last season, had 13 points, nine assists, three rebounds and three steals in the Magic’s season-opening defeat of Miami on Wednesday. He was off to a strong start on Friday, compiling four points, four assists and a steal in 15 minutes before experiencing the sharp pain in his left leg.
“My hamstring was already tight and I was trying to play through it and I went up for a layup and my hamstring kind of locked up on me,’’ said Payton, who was replaced in the starting lineup on Saturday in Cleveland by veteran guard D.J. Augustin.
Payton played all 82 games in his rookie season and last season, making him the only Magic player to do so both times. He said he doesn’t want to put a timetable on his return, but vowed to do everything possible to get back as quickly as possible. After all, there’s nothing he despises more than missing games.
“It’s super tough and I love being out there and helping my teammates,’’ Payton said. “(The hamstring) is all right. I know that I’ll be back and back better. I’ll just hit the rehab like crazy and the treatment like crazy and I’ll be back in no time.’’
A.G. STILL OUT: What makes Payton’s injury doubly tough for the Magic is the fact that Aaron Gordon is also nursing a sprained left ankle. Gordon, who suffered the injury on Wednesday following a hard hit at the rim, didn’t play Friday or Saturday because of lingering pain in his ankle. He did report progress on Saturday and said he plans to test the ankle again on Tuesday morning in hopes of playing that night at the Amway Center against Brooklyn.
“It’s quickly getting better and day by day I’m getting better,’’ Gordon said. “The strength is coming back – that was the biggest thing I was lacking. It was overstretched and weak and I didn’t have any explosion off it. I’m starting to get my explosion back and I’ll be good.’’
Gordon was Orlando’s leading scorer in the preseason, but he struggled through the second half of Wednesday’s opener – something that was the result of the injury, he said. He tried jumping off the sore ankle before Friday’s game, but he had to cut that warmup session short.
“It’s super frustrating knowing that I could have helped my team win,’’ Gordon said, referring to the 126-121 loss to the Nets. “I know I can help this team win and I want to be a leader, so sitting out is not fun and it’s frustrating.’’
Gordon said he has to keep the big picture in mind and not rush back too soon and cause the pain in his ankle to linger for an extended period of time.
“I’ve got to be patient (because) I truly believe that we’re going to have longer season this year,’’ Gordon said. “We’re going to go to the playoffs and have a playoff run, so I’ve got to make sure that I’m ready for the long haul and the duration of a playoff run.’’
VOOCH FROM 3: As he was hoisting hundreds of 3-pointers a day over the summer, center Nikola Vucevic thought there would come a time this season when he would get hot from the outside and the shot would prove to be a major weapon for the Magic.
However, the 7-foot Vucevic never figured that moment would come so early in the 2017-18 season.
Vucevic scored a career-best 41 points in Friday’s loss in Brooklyn and much of the damage that he inflicted on the Nets came via his dead-eye shooting from beyond the 3-point line. Vucevic, who had never made more than two 3-pointers in a game in six NBA seasons before Friday, drilled six of his eight tries from beyond the arc against the Nets.
Vucevic made them when the defense collapsed inside, when the Magic found him trailing on transition plays and when they needed points at the end of the shot clock. In the process of becoming the 12th player in franchise history to score 40 points and only the fourth in a Magic uniform to have at least 40 points and 10 rebounds, Vucevic surprised even himself with his 3-point accuracy in just the second game of the regular season.
“Eventually, yeah I did (think he could make several 3-pointers in a game), but not this early in the season,’’ he said candidly after the Magic’s 126-121 loss to the Nets. “It’s a little different for me, shooting that three. But it’s not something totally new. I just had to get the reps in. It’s also kind of a conditioning thing because it’s a further shot and you have to use your legs more and a little more arc is needed. It’s just a conditioning thing, a feel thing and I put a lot of work in. I still do (work on the shot) every day before practice and after and I’m glad to see that it’s paying off. I’m just going to continue to shoot it when my teammates find me.’’
Despite being one of the NBA’s best mid-range shooters for years, Vucevic had never taken more than four 3-point shots in a game or more than nine 3-point attempts in a season prior to the 2016-17 campaign. He grew more comfortable beyond the stripe last season, making 23 of 75 tries and he headed into this past summer vowing to work on the shot so that he could add another weapon to his offensive arsenal.
Vucevic, the Magic’s longest-tenured player, missed all three of his 3-point heaves in Orlando’s season-opening defeat of Miami on Wednesday. That didn’t cause him to hesitate on Friday as he burned Brooklyn centers Timofey Mozgov and Jarrett Allen for four 3-pointers in the first half and one in the third and fourth quarters. He might have had a shot at a seventh 3-pointer – one that might have tied the game in the closing seconds – had the pass to him not come in knee-high.
“I can’t imagine him having a better game than he had because his shot-making was ridiculous,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel joked. “The 3-point (shooting) that he’s been working on came into play big-time. And when he had a small guy on him, he went into the post and beat them that way. He played a perfect game.’’
UP NEXT: After playing their first of 15 back-to-back sets of games on Friday and Saturday, the Magic will be off on Sunday. The team will return to the practice court on Monday before facing the Nets on Tuesday at the Amway Center.
To beat Brooklyn, Orlando must improve on the 60 paint points, 16 offensive rebounds and 25 free throws that it yielded in Friday night’s loss to the Nets.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.