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Magic Notebook: Payton’s return, and the defense improving

On the return of Elfrid Payton, and the Magic’s defense on Wednesday night.

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Payton lifts Magic in return

Getting your point guard back can make all of the difference.

After two abysmal games against the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics over the weekend, the Orlando Magic got a big boost from Elfrid Payton in his return from injury. Payton, who injured his hamstring in the teams second game of the season, missed eight straight before returning in a big way on Wednesday night.

It didn’t take long for Payton to make his presence felt, connecting with Aaron Gordon for an alley-oop a mere 32 seconds into the contest.

“We know he [Payton] and Aaron Gordon have great lob chemistry,” said Magic coach Frank Vogel after the game. “We put that in for the first play for him to look for Aaron. Executed it well and carried it through the whole game, really.”

Execute he did, as Payton pushed the pace, and got the Magic into their sets and found open, high-quality shots on many possessions. Off a miss, a make, or even a turnover, the Magic were out and running, led by Payton.

“A sight for sore eyes,” said Vogel about Payton’s return.

The difference that Payton made was alarming. The Magic looked like a completely different team with him on the floor than they had in their previous two games.

“He’s a point guard,” said Vogel when asked about what it is that Payton does that gets people in the right places. “He finds people, he makes sure everybody is involved in the flow of the offense.

“I’ve empowered him to call the plays while he’s out there and he’s done a great job just making sure everyone is involved, and he’s a terrific passer. He’s not just orchestrating stuff, but he’s creating for others, and everyone gets hot as a result.”

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With Payton in the game, the Magic were a robust +20 on the night. While his 11 points might not jump off the page, his 11 assists to just two turnovers does. Moreover, Payton’s activity, and ability to get into the paint opened up a countless amount of secondary assists, and wide open shots for his teammates.

“I’m so excited he’s back on the court,” said Gordon. “He’s just a tremendous player. The pace that he plays with, his court vision, his passing ability. It just makes a world of difference for us. He always has his head up. He finds me on ally-oops like nobody else.”

Gordon aside, Payton’s teammates raved about him being back, and the impact he had.

“Finally, man,” said Evan Fournier, who finished with 23 points on the night. “He’s really big for us. The biggest thing with E.P. is the pace. He's incredible getting into the paint, making decisions, pushing the pace. When your point guard is running, as a wing player, you have to run. It's just better for us offensively.”

“It was big,” said Nikola Vucevic, who was the beneficiary of multiple passes from Payton throughout the night. “It was good to have him back, especially the first unit. We’re all very comfortable playing with him. He knows everyone’s comfort zones, sweet spots, how everybody likes to play. Just able to get all of us involved early, and all of us in good position. It’s good to have him back.”

It was a long few weeks for the point guard, but he was excited to be back on the floor. “It’s feels good,” said Payton when asked about his ability to have the impact he did after being away for two weeks.

“That’s what I’m here for, to make everybody’s job as easy as possible. To hear that, it feels good. I’ll keep pushing it, keep trying to get better and get them good shots.”

Getting Payton back now is a huge boost for the Magic. With eight of their next 10 on the road, and D.J. Augustin likely out for the foreseeable future, the Magic needed Payton in a bad way.

Defense, defense, defense

Early on in the season, it was the Magic offense that was turning heads.

Slowly, the Magic defense has begun to turn around, and that was prominent on Wednesday night. Despite giving up a blistering 52.5 percent from the field, the Magic defense swarmed and made life a living hell for the Knicks all night.

Orlando’s active hands forced 23 Knicks turnovers, leading to 29 points on the night. Fournier tied a career-high with five steals, with Vucevic added four of his own.

After their loss to the Celtics on Sunday night, coach Vogel wasn’t happy with how his team defended the Celtics, most notably in the post.

“ I thought he conceded too many catches in the post in the Boston game, and too many catches in general,” he said. “We wanted to ramp up our pressure a little bit, weather [Kristaps] Porzingis played or not, and our guys did a good job of disallowing catches, which forced them to go into their second action, and we were active with our hands and able to force some turnovers.”

The improvement on the defensive end is a welcoming sign for the Magic, who have ranked 17th or lower in defensive rating the last three seasons. After Wednesday night’s game, the Magic sat sixth in the league in defensive rating, giving up 101.1 points per 100 possessions.

“We’re just starting to understand each other better as a collective defensive unit,” said Aaron Gordon. “We’re able to switch, and make up for each others mistakes. There’s going to be mistakes throughout the game, but we need to be able to rely on each other to correct our mistakes, and we did that all night long.”

Couple their improving play on the defensive end with their strong offensive play — the Magic are one of just two teams in the top-11 of both Offensive and defensive rating — and the Magic could have something special brewing.

Improvements, and strong play aside, the Magic still have areas to work on. They struggle with boxing out at times, and teams are still able to get into the paint seemingly at will. They’ve struggled with getting beat on cuts, and backdoor plays, as well.

Nonetheless, Wednesday night’s performance was another step in the right direction for the Magic on the defensive end.