Payton makes his mark in career-best offensive showing against Memphis
ORLANDO, Fla. — The Memphis Grizzles appeared willing Friday night to take their chances on letting Elfrid Payton get more shots up than usual if it meant holding Nikola Vucevic somewhat in check.
While that strategy worked to an extent, it also gave the Orlando Magic and their fans reason to be delighted with the continued progress of the rookie point guard who came into the NBA with a limited offensive game.
The Magic were unable to sustain the same type of pace they did in defeating the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets as they lost 106-96 to the Grizzlies, who are one of the league’s top defensive teams year in and year out. But they took more than a little solace in seeing Payton lead them with 22 points and 12 assists, both of which were career highs.
"He’s getting better every game," fellow guard Victor Oladipo said. "We need him to be effective and play like that for us every game. I remember I was in the same shoes last year. It’s a process. He’s phenomenal, and I love playing with him."
With both Vucevic and Oladipo on a tear in the past week, that was all the more reason not to think of Payton as a primary scoring option. But when the Magic got on a roll in the first quarter against the Grizzlies, he was the one who led the way with six points, six assists and no turnovers.
Even his two free-throw attempts were nothing but net, a rare feat for someone shooting only 51.1 percent from the line going into the game.
"It was just kind of how the flow of the game was going," Payton said. "I was able to get into the paint and tried to get my floater going, and it was going today. I was able to get all the way to the rim, and the shots were falling."
Only Oladipo ended up taking more shots on the Maqic than Payton, who was 9 of 16 from the floor in 39 minutes. Vucevic was unable to have his way with Marc Gasol like he did Monday night with Pau Gasol. Though the 7-footer finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, his 13 field-goal attempts were below what Vucevic had been averaging.
"It was a little bit of a trade-off," Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. "They were willing to give up more of Elfrid’s penetration than Nik’s post-ups. You saw a few times that Nik was double-teamed. I think they watched a little bit of film and didn’t want to get him going."
The Magic led for most of the first half but could never fully recover from a third quarter where the Grizzlies controlled the boards and went to the free-throw line 13 times. Payton was still able to distribute the ball with efficiency, but the Magic couldn’t get enough transition opportunities to satisfy them.
"In the third quarter, they did a good job of forcing us to foul them," said Payton, who had averaged 6.7 points and 6.0 assists in 23 previous starts. "And they got to the free-throw line and slowed it down. It was tough for us to get out and run."
"They’re very deliberate," Vaughn said. "We tried to push the pace a little bit. But they have two big boys down the middle (Gasol and Zach Randolph) that make it pretty tough."
Payton’s layup with 1:25 remaining made it a 100-96 game. But the Grizzlies responded with a dunk by Jeff Green, playing in only his second game since being acquired from the Boston Celtics, off the last of Gasol’s eight assists. When a 3-point attempt by Payton bounced off the rim with under a minute to go, it served as the Magic’s last gasp.
While the Magic weren’t particularly turnover-prone, they couldn’t force the Grizzlies to turn the ball over more than 11 times. The Magic’s five steals were a noticeable drop-off from their season high of 14 against the Rockets.
"No matter what, we’ve got to continue to keep playing this way, keep playing this pace," Oladipo said. "That’s how we’re effective."
"It’s something we’re working on," Payton added. "But I think we’re making progress."
That goes double for him.