ORLANDO, Fla. — If there was any question how important point guard Elfrid Payton is to running the Orlando Magic‘s offence smoothly that has been put to rest.
After missing the previous eight games because of a left hamstring injury, Payton returned to the floor against the New York Knicks on Wednesday night. The Magic found their rhythm and winning touch with Payton back in the lineup in a 112-99 victory over the short-handed Knicks.
Payton had 11 points and 11 assists in 29 minutes.
"A sight for sore eyes," said Magic coach Frank Vogel, whose team ended a two-game losing streak Wednesday night. "That’s what it was for me seeing Elfrid Payton back out there."
Suddenly, the spacing was there, the ball was moving and the Magic players were getting the ball just where they wanted it. And it took Aaron Gordon exactly 32 seconds into the game for Payton to find him flying toward the basketball for one of their signature alley-oop connections.
Payton was indeed back and so was the Magic’s offensive explosiveness.
"It was really cool just to have Frank be so aware that I hadn’t gotten a lob in a while," Gordon said. "EP was back, he knew that play was going to be open, and we hadn’t run it while."
The Magic (7-4) had played without Payton for nearly 2 1/2 weeks and have been without backup D.J. Augustin (hamstring) the last three games. That left Orlando with one healthy point guard, third-stringer Shelvin Mack who wasn’t use to playing with the starting unit.
But the Magic looked more like the team that started fast Wednesday night. They shot 54 per cent from the floor and 46 per cent from 3-point range with Payton running the show most of the night despite his hamstring still feeling tight.
Nikola Vucevic led five Magic players in double figures with 24 points while Evan Fournier added 23 and Gordon finished with 21 points.
Payton was only too glad to be back out there creating for his teammates.
"It feels good," he said. "That’s what I’m here for to make everybody’s job as easy as possible."
The Knicks, meanwhile, were out of sorts with Kristaps Porzingis out of the lineup with ankle and elbow injuries sidelining him for the night. With the NBA’s second-leading scorer not on the floor, the Knicks only found consistent scoring from Tim Hardaway Jr., who led all scorers with 26.
Otherwise, they were marred in inconsistency as their three-game winning streak came to an end. New York (6-5) committed 23 turnovers with Orlando jumping the passing lanes for 16 steals.
"That was a big difference in the game," Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said about the turnovers. "(The Magic) had a little more energy."
But the Knicks, playing a back-to-back, managed to keep the game relatively close until early in the fourth quarter. That’s when Jonathon Simmons came off the bench for Magic and scored 11 straight points during a stretch to help Orlando re-establish a double-digit lead.
Simmons, who had played backup point in Payton’s absence, scored 15 of his 16 points in the second half in his more natural wing role.
"When we’re at our best, it’s with the starting unit doing what they are doing and Simmons coming in and running the show with the second unit," Vogel said. "So EP has a ripple effect, putting Simmons back in his natural environment."
Knicks: Forward Michael Beasley started in place of injured Porzingis. Beasley scored four points. … Point guard Jarrett Jack converted 3 of 4 field goals in the first half and had four assists but he also had four turnovers. He finished with six turnovers on the night.
Magic: Fournier had five steals in the first half and was a major reason the Magic outscored the Knicks on fast break points 14-0 during the first two quarters. For the game, the Magic outscored the Knicks 21-4 on fast breaks.
Knicks: Hosts Sacramento on Saturday night.
Magic: At Phoenix on Friday night.