Point guard battle pivotal in Suns-Magic matchup
PHOENIX -- Lobs. Dunks. An offensive rhythm that results in easier shots. That is what point guard Elfrid Payton provides for Orlando, and the Magic rejoiced in his return on Wednesday.
The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, hope to find a way to move forward without point guard Eric Bledsoe, absent since the fourth game of the season before finally traded to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier in the week.
The Suns and Magic will meet at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Friday night.
Payton had 11 points and 11 assists in a 112-99 victory over the New York Knicks on Wednesday after missing the previous eight games with a hamstring injury. The victory broke the Magic's two-game losing streak.
It did not take long for Payton's presence to be felt. About a half-minute in, Payton and power leaper Aaron Gordon connected on an alley-oop dunk, their pet play.
"It feels good," Payton said. "That's what I'm here for, to make everybody's job as easy as possible."
Orlando (7-4) will play the opener of a four-game, six-day trip against the Suns before visiting Denver on Saturday. The trip concludes with games against Golden State (Monday) and Portland (Wednesday), a stretch in which the Magic will play eight of 10 on the road.
The Magic shot 53.8 percent and had 31 assists against the Knicks. Nikola Vucevic (24 points), Evan Fournier (23) and Gordon (21) each shot better than 50 percent.
"A sight for sore eyes -- that's what it was for me seeing Elfrid Payton back out there," Magic coach Frank Vogel said.
The Suns have played with Mike James and Tyler Ulis at the point since the fourth game of the season, when Bledsoe was told not to show up following his "I Dont wanna be here" tweet.
James had 18 points, three assists and no turnovers in a season-high 31 minutes during a 126-115 home loss to the Miami Heat on Wednesday. The Suns (4-8) dropped their fourth straight.
James, a 27-year-old rookie who spent much of the past five seasons overseas, had a career-high 24 points in a 122-114 victory at Brooklyn on Oct. 31. He is averaging 12.3 points and 4.0 assists while shooting 39 percent from the field.
Phoenix's leading scorer, shooting guard Devin Booker, also has been used in a distribution role at times, understanding that when he passes, opponents may double-team less, leading to better shot opportunities.
Booker finished with 30 points, six assists and no turnovers against the Heat.
"With Bledsoe obviously now being gone, our young guards, a lot more falls on (Booker's) shoulders of being a mobile playmaker," veteran forward Jared Dudley said. "He is playing high minutes, and we are also asking him defensively to take the next step. Good thing he's young, he has a lot of energy, but overall it's going to be a big year for his development to take that next step."
Suns interim coach Jay Triano said, "We're trying to put (Booker) in positions where he can make more plays for people. When he has the ball, he makes good decisions, whether it's scoring or moving it to get other guys shots."
The Suns have been slow starters recently. They have been behind after the first quarter in each of their past five games, and they trailed 36-27 after one quarter and 69-54 at halftime against Miami.
"It seems like we are a little anxious and rushed at the beginning of the game," James said. "We just need to settle down a little more ... sometimes you miss shots, and sometimes that makes you a little anxious."
Updated November 10, 2017