The sound of the shot clock buzzer has become more familiar to Orlando Magic players over the last week. In Elfrid Payton’s absence, it seems, the team is racing to get a decent shot up before it sounds, rather than exercising precision and patience. Aimless, confused, erratic - all words that have come to mind in the last two games without Payton.
Orlando’s offense isn’t quite the spitting image of the mid-aughts Phoenix Suns when he’s healthy, but without him something’s certainly missing. At about six assists per game, he isn’t putting up eye-popping passing numbers, but that’s head and shoulders above the next highest contributor on the team.
And besides, just take a look at the Magic for a few minutes and you’ll see its equilibrium is off without him.
Payton is the grease that gets the team’s wheels turning on offense, and his teammates know it.
"The ball movement’s not good at all right now, and a part of that’s because (Payton) is out," Evan Fournier said after Wednesday’s 95-86 loss to the Indiana Pacers. "When you have a point guard who calls the right plays at the good moment and makes good reads – it’s just harder when you only have one point guard. Vic (Oladipo) is doing as good as he can, and he’s doing very good, but when Payton is on the floor it’s just different."
Against the Indiana Pacers, it took the Magic four minutes just to put its first points on the board. A four-minute scoring drought in the middle of a game is troubling, but to start the game that way is nigh unheard of. Payton’s absence may not be the sole reason for that, but it’s indicative of the problems facing Orlando without him.
The team is left to rely on Oladipo and Shabazz Napier, a point guard whose biggest strength is finding his own points. A lot of pressure falls on Nikola Vucevic to distribute from the block or high-post – something that he’s capable of, but perhaps better suited to do in doses – and on wings to create for themselves and others.
"We definitely got to get the ball moving a little bit more. Offensively, in the beginning we had a little bit better pace to it," Tobias Harris said. "Now we’re starting to hold our dribble, and we’re forced to take some tough shots at the end of the shot clock."
That’s the main thing we’ve seen in Payton’s absence; things on offense look much tougher. For several stretches of the last few games it’s felt like pulling teeth when the Magic score.
Take a look at the Magic’s most-used lineups and you’ll see Payton’s a staple. He’s in every five-man lineup Orlando has used in 10 games or more this season. The jury’s still out on how effective each one of those lineups are, but Payton’s prominence shouldn’t be easily dismissed. It shows he’s an integral part of Scott Skiles’ game plan night in and night out.
When you watch Payton and the Magic play, he doesn’t stand out in the same way many other point guards shine. It’s not uncommon to see him initiate plays by quickly passing the ball and cutting across the floor, left to wait. But, when the ball gets back to him, he has a knack for making things run more smoothly.
Payton’s questionable for tonight’s game against the Nets, but there’s no question Orlando could use him to take the wheel and help straighten things out after the shaky play of late.