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NBA AM: Elfrid Payton Heating Up

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Elfrid Payton has had one of the best weeks of his career, yet he was quick to deflect the attention Wednesday night in the Orlando Magic locker room. Instead, Payton credited his teammates and the new style of offense head coach Frank Vogel has instituted recently.

Payton recorded his fifth career triple-double against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, which followed another triple-double performance against the New York Knicks on Monday. While Payton didn’t want to talk much about it, his teammates were quick to offer praise for their point guard.

“That’s my boy, man,” Aaron Gordon said. “That’s really my boy. I love that dude. That’s my brother. We’ve been together for a long time playing basketball, so to see him in his success, and him finding a groove like that, it’s just amazing.”

Payton scored 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists against the Knicks and followed up that performance with 22 points, a career-high 14 assists and a career-high 14 rebounds against the Bulls. He joined Russell Westbrook and James Harden as the only guards in the NBA this season to record at least two triple-doubles.

“I thought [Wednesday night] was even more impressive than [Monday] night,” Evan Fournier said. “E.P. carried us. He was making every right play down the court, being aggressive and just being E.P. – scrambling defensively, having rebounds. Just fighting overall.”

With his triple-double on Monday, Payton passed Hedo Turkoglu for the Magic franchise leader in triple-doubles. For a franchise that has featured players like Shaquille O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, Anfernee Hardaway, Dwight Howard and Grant Hill among others, his accomplishment seems even more impressive.

So, did it mean anything more to Payton that he was able to record triple-doubles in consecutive games?

“I’m really more marveling at this win we got, to be honest,” Payton said.

After the All-Star break, the Magic opted to change to play more small ball. While many teams in the NBA have already adopted that philosophy, the Magic just made the switch in the past few weeks. It’s a move that many had been calling for the team to make given some of their personnel on the roster.

As teams constructed their rosters in the offseason with more versatility to play small, the Magic took the opposite approach and got bigger by adding Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo. Sensing that a change was needed, the Magic traded Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Terrence Ross before the trade deadline.

One huge advantage of switching to a smaller lineup has been Gordon playing more at power forward. The Magic experimented by playing Gordon mostly at small forward this season and the results seemed to be mixed at times. While Gordon proved able to hold his own against some players, he struggled at times with some of the elite small forwards in the league.

Gordon moving over to the four spot on the floor seems to be working well and the team has played much better. With his size and athleticism, Gordon has been able to take advantage of the bigger opponents and work around them. He’s also shown that he can power through some of the smaller players he’s matched up with as well.

Although the team has gone just 3-4 since the change, they’ve squandered fourth quarter leads in three of those games and could have posted a better record had they played different late in those games. They blew fourth quarter leads of 11 points twice and a lead of seven points once during those games following the All-Star break.

“I think [this style] benefits everybody,” Payton said. “I think it benefits [Gordon]. He’s got bigger guys on him; he’s going to be able to go around them. They put smaller guys on, he’s getting a bunch of put backs. I think it fits Evan. I think it fits everybody in this locker room, not just me.”

While Payton was quick to suggest other Magic players have benefitted from the new style of play, he has played the best he has all season in this new system. In seven games after the All-Star break, Payton is averaging 13 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game, while shooting 57.4 percent from the field. His rebounds rank third and his assists are ninth among all guards during that time frame.

Payton is the only player in Magic history to have recorded triple-doubles in consecutive games and he has done it twice (previously in 2015). He joined Jason Kidd and LeBron James as the only players over the last 30 years with two separate streaks of games with triple-doubles at 23 years old or younger, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“He’s just found a great rhythm,” Gordon said. “With so many different options on the floor, he can just pick and choose what he wants. What also he’s doing well is he’s reading the flow of the game. If somebody scores something, or if somebody hasn’t got a touch in a while, he makes sure to get them the ball in the right position for them to score and all they have to do is just do what they naturally do.”

While the season has largely been a disappointment for this Magic squad, they look forward to finishing the season out on a high note and building some momentum heading into next season. In the meantime, it could be possible to see Payton throw in a couple more triple-doubles before it’s over with.

If that does happen, his teammates won’t be surprised.

“That’s what we expect from him,” Gordon said. “That’s what he was brought here to do. Anything less … We still love him.”

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About Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.