By John Denton
Nov. 7, 2017
ORLANDO – Elfrid Payton’s DNA as a point guard has always been to think of others first and himself secondly when running the Orlando Magic’s offense.
Payton said he’s had to use that same mindset as he’s frustratingly dealt with a strained left hamstring that has kept him out of action the past eight games.
“Just live through my teammates, encourage them and pick them up and cheer them on,’’ Payton said of the mindset that has kept him from getting too dour about being out the past 2½ weeks with lingering pain in his left leg. “I get excited when they’re playing well and I try and pick them up when things aren’t going their way. So, I’m just trying to live through them. … (Trying to give back) as much as I can, man. That’s what I was put here for – to give.’’
Payton and the Magic hoped that holding him out of games last Friday and Sunday – losses to Chicago and Boston – and having Monday and Tuesday to practice would eliminate the nagging pain he’s felt in his left leg. He practiced fully on Saturday and still felt pain afterward and went through Tuesday’s prep for Wednesday’s game against the New York Knicks. However, Payton was far from confident when addressing the topics of his health and his status for a Wednesday night return.
“A little bit of tightness there. It’s a little sore, but nothing (big),’’ Payton said. When asked if he thinks he will play on Wednesday for the Magic (6-4) against the Knicks, Payton would only go as far as this: “We’ll see.’’
Tipoff against the Knicks at the Amway Center on Wednesday is just after 7 p.m.
If Payton can’t play and with D.J. Augustin out once again with a strained left hamstring of his own, the Magic might have just one true point guard available again. Shelvin Mack, an offseason addition, started last Friday’s game against Chicago, while converted shooting guard Jonathon Simmons opened at lead guard on Sunday against Boston.
The Magic’s offensive production has been far more potent with Payton and Augustin on the floor than the last two games that resulted in ugly losses. Orlando averaged 114.9 points and shot 48.9 percent from the floor and a NBA-best 44.1 percent from 3-point range in the first eight games while posting a dazzling 6-2 record. However, in the past two, the Magic have averaged just 88 points while making only 38.4 percent of their shots and a 25 percent success rate on 3-pointers.
Magic coach Frank Vogel said the struggles haven’t been so much about his team being down to one true point guard as it has been about the high level of competition across the way.
“Honestly it doesn’t change all that much for us,’’ Vogel said of Mack being the only true point guard on the team. “Everyone can say we’re out of rhythm because we don’t have our two point guards in there, but (Simmons) is doing a good job. We were out of rhythm because Boston is a great defensive team. (Simmons) does a great job there, Shelvin Mack does a great job there and I don’t think that’s an excuse for our guys.’’
Vogel said that he and the Magic’s medical staff will take a similar approach with Payton on Wednesday as they did on Sunday before the Boston game. They don’t want the point guard to suffer the kind of setback in his hamstring that might knock him out of action another two weeks.
“He looked good again, but he still has some tightness in (the hamstring) that we’re concerned about,’’ Vogel said. “We’ll see how he feels (on Wednesday). If (the pain) is significant, we’ll hold him out again. We want to be smart about it. Hopefully he’s able to go, but we’ll see (on Wednesday).’’
Payton has a long history of playing through pain, never missing a game while in college at Louisiana Lafayette or in his rookie season in the NBA. Last season, when he was often Orlando’s most dynamic player, he was once again the only Magic player to appear in all 82 games.
He said the hamstring injury has been especially challenging for him because rest and rehabilitation go against everything he was taught as an athlete in terms of pushing himself physically. Instead, he’s had to walk a fine line of being patient while also trying to speed up the recovery process.
“Super hard, especially not being out there to help my teammates in any kind of way whether it was bringing energy, defensively or being a leader,’’ said Payton, was injured in the second quarter of the second game of the season. “So, it’s been really tough.
“I’ve been able to pick up on a few lapses on defense that we can correct,’’ Payton said of what he’s been able to learn from his vantage point along the Magic defense. “We talked about it today in film (on Tuesday), so I’m looking forward to us getting after that the rest of the season.’’
Aaron Gordon, one of Payton’s closest friends on the team, said he can’t wait for the team’s standout point guard to return because of the trickle-down effect his play has on the rest of the squad.
“He’s just so talented and we miss his ability to push the pace for us and he’s at the top of the league at getting in the lane and getting his floater off,’’ Gordon said. “That (floater) is just a threat in itself. And when the defense bogs us down, he makes everything easier for everyone else by opening the floor up. And he throws me alley-oops. I haven’t caught an alley-oop in a while, so I’m excited to catch one from him.’’
Payton, who racked up five triple-doubles late last season while serving as the driving force of Orlando’s up-tempo offense, said he feels awful about the way his injury has put the Magic in a difficult position. He played well in the preseason and then battered the rival Miami Heat in the opener for 13 points, nine assists, three rebounds and three steals.
Payton played through an ankle sprain in the opener and he said his hamstring felt tight going into the second game – one that saw him limp to the locker room before halftime after suffering the strain. Payton said he’s been impressed with the way Augustin, Mack and Simmons have kept the team afloat while he’s been out.
“It changes a lot (when there’s only one healthy point guard) because sometimes people take for granted what a point guard brings to the team,’’ Payton said. “It’s just about overall flow. It’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just that they haven’t played there their whole life and now you put them there against the highest competition in basketball. I think (Simmons) has done a great job with the hand that he’s been dealt and he’s still been able to be effective for us. It’s just about the overall flow and getting us in sets when things break down and a team going on a run against us – those are the things that a point guard can bring to a team.’’
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