ORLANDO, Fla. — Not long after Elfrid Payton was handed the starting point guard reins by the Orlando Magic last month, Devyn Marble was handed an airplane ticket to Erie.
Two games with the Magic’s NBA Development League affiliate didn’t exactly prepare Marble for the task of guarding Joe Johnson in the fourth quarter of a furious comeback attempt. But the two rookies, along with veterans Ben Gordon and Channing Frye plus third-year pro Evan Fournier, wound up making matters interesting Friday night for the fans who stuck around and hairy for the Brooklyn Nets.
"If we wouldn’t have dug ourselves such a deep hole, I think we could have pulled this one out," Payton said after his 13 fourth-quarter points weren’t enough to stop the Magic from losing 100-98 in a game they trailed by as many as 26.
For some whose offense has been viewed as little more than an added bonus to his passing and defensive skills, Payton turned into as much of a scoring threat as Gordon, a Sixth Man of the Year as a rookie a decade ago. And Marble was hardly some wide-eyed kid wondering why he was no longer in northwest Pennsylvania.
"I didn’t envision it quite like that," he said of being brought off the bench by coach Jacque Vaughn as early as toward the end of the first quarter. "But I think it went well. I kind of figured I would get a chance to play today. He just told me to be ready. At shootaround, I was working on stuff and making shots in the right place so I just knew come gametime that my shot would be ready."
"He wasn’t just strictly concerned about his offense," Vaughn said. "He gave us some life at the defensive end of the floor. He stepped up to the challenge of guarding an All-Star (Johnson). Life must be good to come from Erie and come back and play 21 minutes."
The 37 points by the Magic in the fourth quarter represented their second-highest total of the season in any period. Fittingly, the only larger output was a 41-point fourth quarter Nov. 21 at Charlotte in defeating the Hornets after trailing by 23 at one point.
But life in the second and third quarters against the Nets was anything but good. The Magic were outscored 64-36 over that stretch to make it seem as if Marble’s inclusion in the lineup to begin the final 12 minutes was nothing more than a chance to get him some work in garbage time.
"Ben had been sitting over there freaking the whole game, and after one or two (made shots), we just kept feeding him," Frye said. "And Devyn made a clutch shot or two. We have to trust that everybody’s doing the best they can to get better. It’s easy basketball, man — you play unselfish and you play hard, and you just let it be."
In the past six weeks, the Magic have won at Charlotte after being down 23, almost lost to the Boston Celtics after being up 27, and almost prevented the Nets from reaching the .500 mark for the first time since mid-November. Payton has seen first-hand that no lead is too safe and no deficit is too insurmountable.
"Maybe at first, but not anymore," he said. "The 24-second shot clock gives you a lot of time to come back. You’ve just got to get stops and make shots."
The last shot he made was a 3-pointer, only his fourth successful try all season, flung up in the waning seconds.
"You just saw his competitive nature come out," said Gordon, who also had 13 points in the final quarter. "He competed on every possession, just played like every play was his last play. And that’s what we needed to have a chance. Thanks to him, he gave us a shot."
Payton will continue to be a key component as the Magic move forward. How many more shots Marble will receive like this is less clear.
"He’s kind of past his rookie situation," Marble said of Payton. "He’s been out there and got his rhythm. I just wanted to come out there and play defense."
But the Magic need to prove they can play that for more than 12-minute stretches with a game seemingly out of reach.
"With a young team, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can pick spots when we’re going to play hard and when we’re not," Gordon said. "So it’s just the entire game — 48 minutes, plus the layup line, plus the halftime layup line, until we can figure out how to win games."
Added Frye: "We’re not the best defensively. We’re not the best offensively. But when we play together and we play unselfish, we’re a pretty darn good team. We’ve shown we can compete with anybody."