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Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic collaborate on Return of the Elf

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Disinterested Payton leads struggling Suns against his former team for the first time

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Phoenix Suns at Orlando Magic

Time: 4 pm (Phoenix time)

TV: Fox Sports Arizona Plus

Radio: 98.7 FM


I know that this is traditionally where you dear and faithful readers come to celebrate Holidays with Deadpoolio, but today is more like Events with Deadpoolio. That’s because on this date in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the coastal waters and creating one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

Speaking of disasters, the Phoenix Suns (19-54), winners of just one game in nearly two months, find themselves in Florida for the second game of their final back-to-back of the season to take on the almost equally bad Orlando Magic (21-51).

Magic Update

After an 8-4 start to the season, someone reminded the Magic they weren’t supposed to be good. They listened, winning 13 of their next 60 games and firmly entrenching themselves with the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference cellar. Orlando has lost eight of its last nine games, the most recent being a 118-98 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers that was even uglier than the final score indicates.

Progress among the young core has been slow coming. Aaron Gordon looks to finally be reaching his potential, just in time to hit restricted free agency. Despite missing significant time due to injury this season, he is averaging career highs virtually across the board and has three games of 39 or more points this season. Nikola Vucevic has assembled another solid season for himself (16.9 points, 8.9 rebounds) and is still capable of leading a team offensively, with a 41-point game under his belt in 2017-18. Evan Fournier (17.8 points) and Jonathon Simmons (13.9 points) constitute the other high-end scorers on the Magic roster, but both are dealing with injuries. That leaves a lot of ground to be made up. Veteran D.J. Augustin has stepped into the starting point guard role vacated by Elfrid Payton nicely, averaging 13 points and 5.5 assists while shooting 45.1 percent from 3 since Feb. 8. Mario Hezonja has also started to show flashes of the talent that made him the No. 5 overall pick in 2015, but he has hit a wall of late, putting up just 8.2 points on 34 percent shooting (16.7 percent from behind the arc). Backup center Bismack Biyombo is the only Magic player to appear in all 72 games for them this season.

Head coach Frank Vogel’s arrival in Orlando was supposed to usher in a defensive mindset for the Magic. After all, the Indiana Pacers had been owners of one of the league’s best defenses under his stewardship. That hasn’t been the case, however. The Magic allow 109.2 points per game while surrendering 47.3-percent field goal shooting and 36.6-percent 3-point shooting to their opponents. They also surrender 45.5 rebounds and 24.4 assists per contest to their opponent — all numbers that rank in the bottom third of the NBA. With their own rebounding average being poor and their block and steal averages landing in the middle of the pack, the Magic aren’t about to lock teams down. And lacking the firepower to win on offense alone most nights, the reason for Orlando’s position in the standings is clear.

Team Leaders

Points: Aaron Gordon (18.0)

Rebounds: Nikola Vucevic (8.9)

Assists: D.J. Augustin (3.8)

Suns Update

Hey, let’s forget that the Suns have lost 10 straight after falling 120-95 to the Cleveland Cavaliers yesterday. And let’s also forget that they’ve lost 25 of their last 27 games and that their last win over a quality opponent was Jan. 19 against the Denver Nuggets (a game I covered, thank you very much). What’s important in trying times such as these is that we have each other. And also, blood sacrifices for ping pong balls.

(Disclaimer: Legal has requested that I make clear that neither Bright Side nor SB Nation condone blood sacrifices. So stay away from your neighbor’s chicken coop, all right?)

The Suns are nearing the point of strategic resting once again, albeit more stealthily this time around. Tyson Chandler has been “resting” since February with his neck and back issues, and both Devin Booker and T.J. Warren, while nursing real injuries, will probably be slowed in their return out of an abundance of caution (for the team’s draft odds). But Josh Jackson has been healthy and is finally looking like the player he was drafted to be. He has scored 15 or more points in each of his last five games, including a career-high 36 points that was the most off the bench by a rookie since Rodrigue Beaubois scored 40 points on Mar. 27, 2010 with the Dallas Mavericks. His playmaking is also improving, and head coach Jay Triano seems increasingly comfortable allowing the rookie to initiate the offense — something that was anathema early in the season.

It’s also worth noting that today is the one-year anniversary of Booker’s 70-point performance as well at the 28-year anniversary of Tom Chambers’ 60-point game. Suns players like scoring big on Mar. 24, so maybe Troy Daniels pulls a Tony Delk and surprises everyone tonight.

Team Leaders

Points: Devin Booker (24.9)

Rebounds: Tyson Chandler (9.1)

Assists: Elfrid Payton (6.3)

Injury Report

Devin Booker (Suns): sprained right hand (QUESTIONABLE)

Tyson Chandler (Suns): neck/back soreness (OUT)

Brandon Knight (Suns): torn left ACL (OUT)

T.J. Warren (Suns): sprained left knee (OUT)

Alan Williams (Suns): torn right meniscus (OUT)

Evan Fournier (Magic): sprained left MCL (OUT)

Jonathan Isaac (Magic): strained left foot (OUT)

Terrence Ross (Magic): sprained right MCL, fractured tibial plateau (OUT)

Jonathon Simmons (Magic): right wrist contusion (DOUBTFUL)

Game Preview

The Suns lost to the Magic 128-112 on Nov. 10 with Gordon scoring a game-high 22 points and the Magic shooting 52.4 percent from the field and 13 of 28 from 3. Alex Len led Phoenix with 21 points and 13 rebounds that night. However, both teams are missing some principals from that last meeting, with one of them having changed uniforms. That’s right! Welcome to the Elfrid Payton revenge game! Just check out this quote from Payton in the Orlando Sentinel about the bilious rage coursing through his body at the prospect of facing his former team for the first time since being traded:

“Coming into the season, I had already prepared myself mentally for something like this. …I always told myself there was a chance that something like this could happen this season. So I was not sad or hurt by the decision or upset that I had to get all my stuff and move or wouldn’t be with my teammates no more.”

Hot. Fire.

With Warren out and Booker unlikely to play, Payton will need to be a strong running mate for the always aggressive Jackson and find ways to exploit his knowledge of his former team. This is a winnable game for Phoenix, believe it or not, but if Phoenix continues to perform as though they’re just playing out the stretch, they’re asking to be blown out yet again.

Key Matchup

Elfrid Payton vs. D.J. Augustin

Things started so promisingly for Payton with the Suns. He had two triple-doubles and was averaging 16.4 points, 8.2 assists, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.1 steals over his first nine games while being aggressive offensively and shooting 47.9 percent from the field. In the eight games since, though, he’s averaged 7.8 points, 4.1 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 0.6 steals while shooting 37.5 percent from the floor and 12.5 percent from 3. That’s how you earn a pink slip, not a new contract. Meanwhile, Payton’s replacement in Orlando — Augustin — has almost perfectly replaced Payton’s production in the Magic starting lineup, and with him being a career journeyman (yet solid player), that should concern Payton. This is the perfect game for Payton to tap back into that version of himself from immediately following the trade and remind potential summertime suitors of his skill set. He has talent, sure, but teams want to know how high his motor runs. If he can’t get up to face his old team, GMs are going to take notice.

Deadpoolio’s Neat-o Stat of the Game Preview (brought to you by basketball-reference.com)

The Suns have finished with the worst record in the NBA just once in the past 49 years, coming during the 1968-69 inaugural season. So if they do it again here on their 50th anniversary, it’s kind of a nice little full circle thing, right?

All stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com.