By John Denton
Nov. 4, 2017
ORLANDO – In addition to being one of the NBA’s most potent teams offensively thus far, the Orlando Magic have also been arguably the league’s most resilient squad what with the way it has played through both injury and adversity.
Orlando lost starting point guard Elfrid Payton – the key cog in its fast-breaking offense – just 5½ quarters into the season, but it still found a way to run out to an impressive 6-2 record. Then there’s been this: The Magic followed each of their first two losses – Oct. 20 in Brooklyn and last Sunday in Charlotte – with convincing defeats of Cleveland and New Orleans.
Now, following their roughest game of the season in a 105-83 loss to the rebuilding Chicago Bulls, the Magic must again prove their resiliency with a strong rebound performance.
This time, Orlando (6-3) very well could have a healthy Payton back at the controls when it faces the surging Boston Celtics (7-2) Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Amway Center. Payton, who has been out since suffering a hamstring injury on Oct. 20, was back at practice on Saturday and his availability for Sunday will depend on how his left leg feels closer to game time.
Regardless of who is playing point guard for the Magic, they know they must be mentally and physically tougher than they were on Friday and play with more purpose against the Celtics.
“A true elite team will bounce back after a night like (Friday) and play better. We have to work on our in-game mental toughness, but we also have to show some fortitude the next time we step on the court on Sunday,’’ said veteran guard Arron Afflalo, a mentor to many of the Magic’s younger players who are experiencing success for the first time. “There are a lot of lessons in different parts of the season to hopefully have you playing your best basketball at the right time. (Friday) was definitely a tough loss, so we need to bounce back and have a better game.’’
When Orlando faces Boston on Sunday, it will be a battle of two of the teams with the best records in the Eastern Conference. The Magic and Celtics both entered Friday with identical 6-2 records atop the East, and for most of the night it looked as if both would be knocked off that perch. Against Chicago, Orlando fell behind early, rallied in the guts of the game, but faded late in a lopsided loss. As for the Celtics, they trailed Oklahoma City by 18 at the half before mounting a 64-39 charge over the final 24 minutes for a 101-94 road victory.
Boston superstar Kyrie Irving led that comeback by bouncing back from a three-point first half (with one-of-nine shooting) by pouring in 25 points in the second half (on nine-of-13 shooting). The need to slow Irving only intensifies Orlando’s tricky situation at point guard.
“We’re resilient, but this is a different animal (Sunday) night because Boston is playing as well as anybody in the league and they have arguably the best point guard in the NBA,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. “They’re coming in here with a very well-coached system, good young talent and solid big guys. I have the upmost respect for what they are doing.’’
The Magic lost Payton – their best player over the final 24 games of last season – to a hamstring strain midway through the second game of the season. D.J. Augustin filled in admirably the next two weeks, but he strained his left hamstring in a win in Memphis on Wednesday.
Payton was back at practice on Saturday and said the high intensity of the practice helped him test out his hamstring – a test he felt that he passed. The next hurdle for Payton will be seeing how his leg feels on Sunday after pushing his leg hard in a practice.
“It felt good to be working out with my teammates and getting better with my teammates, and I’m just happy to be back out there,’’ said Payton, who figures that it might take him a day or two to build his conditioning and shake off the rust from 13 days of inactivity. “It’s tough (watching) because obviously I want to be out there helping my teammates as much as I can. Sometimes that’s tough (to do) from the bench, but I’m looking forward to getting back.’’
Whether Payton plays on Sunday or not, he will most likely be on a minutes’ restriction. He could be used as either a starter or a reserve, and there is some thinking as to whether he should be held out of the Boston game so as to not suffer a setback that could shelve him for another extended period of time.
“Elfrid looked good. He competed and you saw that his conditioning is a little behind – as to be expected – but he had a good practice,’’ Vogel noted. “It’s going to be how he responds to today’s work. He got through the work pretty well, but we’ll see how he responds to it. We have two days before the next game against New York, so there’s a line of thinking that, `Even if he’s ready, let’s get him two more practices so we can fully put it behind him.’ But we’ll see how he feels (on Sunday).’’
The spate of injuries to Payton and Augustin left veteran Shelvin Mack as Orlando’s only true point guard on Friday, and the offense suffered because of the lack of continuity at that all-important position. Orlando entered Friday first in the NBA in 3-point shooting, second in scoring and second in field goal percentage, but its offense ground to a halt because of a lack of ball movement and missed shots from the 3-point arc and at point-blank range. As a result, the Magic set season lows for points (83), field goal shooting (40.7 percent) and 3-pointer accuracy (28.6 percent) and equaled all-time franchise lows for free throws made (three) and attempted (five).
“We were just a little lackadaisical on defense and I think we let the misses on offense dictate what we were doing defensively and that messes up our whole rhythm and the integrity of our basketball team,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who had 19 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals in 34 minutes.
Things looked dire for Orlando back on Oct. 20 when Payton left with his injury and the team was beaten 126-121 by the Brooklyn Nets. However, the Magic showed off their grit the next night by making 17 3-pointers in a 114-93 throttling of LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Similarly, the Magic came out flat last Sunday in Charlotte and never could get a handle on slowing down point guard Kemba Walker (34 points) in a 120-113 loss to the rival Hornets. A night later in New Orleans, the Magic were dialed in and aggressive from the start and thrived in the fourth quarter of a 115-99 whipping of Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and the Pelicans.
Said Gordon: “We’re not dwelling on a loss and we’re going to bounce back. It’s going to be a fun game (on Sunday). I know we’re all excited for trying to win at home and take care of our home court.’’
Boston entered the season with a star-studded roster following an active summer in which it signed standout forward Gordon Hawayard, drafted rising rookie Jayson Tatum and traded for Irving. However, the Celtics’ resiliency was greatly tested just five minutes into the season when Hayward landed awkwardly and grotesquely broke his tibia and dislocated his ankle – injuries that will knock him out for the rest of the season.
Boston lost that opener in Cleveland and fell again a night later to the Milwaukee Bucks. Since then, however, the Celtics have ripped off seven consecutive victories behind the brilliance of Irving (22.1 ppg., 5.7 apg. and 3.4 rpg.) and the steady leadership of head coach Brad Stevens.
“It’s always a difficult challenge, but I embrace challenges,’’ Payton said of the Magic’s mission to slow down Irving. “If my health is there and I’m able to go, I look forward to (facing Irving). It’s more about how I feel (on Sunday) and I was glad that Coach (Vogel) was able to give us a high-intensity practice today so that I could test it. Now, it’s all about how I feel (on Sunday) after a practice like this.’’
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