ORLANDO, Fla. — March began for Elfrid Payton with him going to scoreless in a loss to the Charlotte Hornets that suggested both he and the Orlando Magic still had a long way to go.
It could end with him being the leading candidate for NBA Rookie of the Year honors.
Payton played a near-perfect game Friday night as the Magic broke a six-game losing streak with a 111-104 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, marking only the second time in two months that they’ve beaten a team with a winning record. Not only did he finish with his second triple-double in as many games with 22 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, but he also turned the ball over just once in 37 minutes and was largely responsible for holding Damian Lillard to two points following halftime.
"It just means I’m playing an all-around game," Payton said of becoming the first rookie in 18 years with at least 10 points, rebounds and assists in consecutive games. "Obviously I need help, so I need my teammates to play hard too. That’s very important to me also."
Nikola Vucevic and Victor Oladipo both scored 22 points and pulled down eight rebounds. Ben Gordon, Andrew Nicholson and Aaron Gordon gave the Magic a boost off their depleted bench, while onetime Blazer Channing Frye had a three-point play to cap a decisive 14-4 run in the fourth quarter.
But there was no question this night belonged to the point guard with the unusual hair and the supposedly limited offensive skills.
"Every time he came off the pick and roll, every time he got downhill, I felt he made the right decision," interim coach James Borrego said. "He’s finding open teammates. He’s getting to the rim. He’s finishing more. He’s more confident. He’s willing to step up to the free-throw line."
After 71 games, Payton appears to have shed whatever tentative tendencies he had as recently as three weeks ago. His growth was especially evident in the fourth quarter Wednesday night at Dallas, when the Magic almost erased a 16-point deficit as he finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.
"He carried over his effort, his intensity, his will from the Dallas game in the fourth quarter to start the game," Borrego said. "We’ve talked about getting off to good starts. And Elfrid’s energy, his focus, his will really started the game for us and he carried it through the entire 48 minutes. I’m really proud of him, really proud of his effort, his growth, the way he’s leading this group, and his confidence right now."
Added Aaron Gordon: "He’s been diligent in his work ethic and what he’s been doing on the floor, and his confidence just grows and grows and grows. He sees that he belongs. He sees that he can be a dominant player in this league."
The Blazers have two dominant players in Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Lillard went off for 14 points in the second quarter, and Aldridge outscored the Magic by himself in the third quarter with 18 points.
But they combined for only seven points in the final 12 minutes as the Magic finally put away a quality opponent after coming up short at Houston and Dallas.
"We tried to make him uncomfortable," Payton said of Lillard. "I had a lot of help from my teammates. We were able to get him out of a rhythm."
"He was getting hit screen after screen with Lillard," Borrego said. "And to fight through those screens … Our bigs helped him with that, but if Elfrid doesn’t get through the screens, it doesn’t matter."
Payton’s ability to get to the rim was a big reason why the Magic ended the game with a 54-42 advantage in points in the paint. The Blazers never sent him to the line once until deliberately fouling him with 3.8 seconds to go and the outcome no longer in doubt. A 52.7-percent shooter going into the game, Payton capped his best game yet by knocking down both attempts.
"I’m just happy we were able to get this win and close out a game finally," he said.
Borrego’s happiness with Payton extended beyond simply the victory.
"I think all of us as individuals, as people, as human beings, when we know people believe in us, we respond better," he said. "We grow better. We live life better. And that’s what we’re about."