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 per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 102.4 points per 100 possessions. That whopping 28-point net rating is one of the Magic’s best of the season 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.
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 – the player Payton would have been guarding. Things got slightly 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 over the past three seasons.
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 quarter, but they could get no closer because of more defensive struggles.
The ugly, predictable loss ended the Magic’s unprecedented success against the Western Conference. A night earlier in a 128-112 thumping of Phoenix, Orlando moved to 4-0 overall and 3-0 on the road against teams from the West. 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.
Evan Fournier, who played the first two years of his career in Denver, scored 18 points, while Aaron Gordon chipped in 13 points. 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.
The only negative of Orlando’s fourth quarter rally was the sprained right ankle that knocked prized rookie forward Jonathan Isaac out of the game. Isaac, who had two points, four rebounds and two blocks, swatted the shot of Emmanuel Mudiay, but landed on the heel of the Denver guard, causing his ankle to turn. He walked off the floor on his own, but was in obvious pain and did not return to the game.
Jonathon 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.
Murray had 32 points and six 3-pointers for Denver, which 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. Rising star Nikola Jokic gave the Nuggets 12 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists, while free-agent signee Paul 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.
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.
Not only did Denver have Friday off, but it was riding the momentum of an impressive defeat of Oklahoma City on Thursday. The Nuggets were focused and ready from the start, whipping the ball around the perimeter to find holes in the Orlando defense. Denver made eight of its first 13 shots and four of seven 3-pointers to blow out to a big lead. And after the Magic briefly got back in the game at 22-19, Denver ripped off the next 12 points to break the game open.
The Nuggets had seven 3-pointers in the first quarter and nine by halftime to lead by as much as 27 points in the first 24 minutes. Fournier (14 first-half points) and Gordon (nine first-half points) tried keeping Orlando within striking distance, but it was futile with the way Denver was raining in 3-pointers.
Murray consistently found cracks in the Orlando offense and scored 22 first-half points by drilling eight of 12 shots and five of seven 3-pointers.
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