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‘Real-life X factor’ Cam Payne brings positive pivotal energy for Sixers

PHILADELPHIA — Usually, jumping at an opportunity is metaphorical.

To watch Cameron Payne on the 76ers bench, though, it’s much more literal.

“I hop around all game,” Payne was saying Thursday. “On the bench, I hop around all game. I’m locked in on the game plan. I pay attention to what’s going on out there on the court.”

Luckily, as the New York Knicks threatened to jump all over the Sixers in the first half and leap out to a 3-0 series lead, Coach Nick Nurse looked down the bench in search of a jumpstart.

Payne was that guy, supplying eight points in the second quarter and one of nine made 3-pointers in a torrid third as the 76ers scored a 125-114 win in Game 3.

It’s the latest instance of the sparkplug guard’s unique skillset – “that whatever-you-need kind of guy,” he calls it – coming through at the right moment in a meandering, nine-year career across six franchises and 55 playoff games.

Payne’s 11 points elicited effusive praise from teammates, for injecting life into a beleaguered second unit that the Knicks had dominated over the first two games.

“I think Cam Payne is the MVP of this game,” Kyle Lowry said. “He’s been staying ready. He’s constantly got energy, and he’s a guy that’s been in this situation before. High energy, high IQ, and we needed that. There’s a guy in the playoffs that always steps up for you, and every single game it’s a different guy. Tonight, Cam Payne was our real-life X factor.”

“It was huge,” Tobias Harris said. “Just his energy, shot-making as well, his speed. He gave a different dynamic for us out there on the floor. I thought he did a great job to embrace the moment.”

Payne had made a name doing this kind of thing. Acquired from Milwaukee in February for Patrick Beverley to shore up the bench, the 29-year-old’s most notable stint was as the understudy to Chris Paul in Phoenix. He played in all 22 of the Suns games in their run to the final in 2021, starting the first two games of the Western Conference final. Last year, he went from inactive in the first four games of the playoffs to starting the Suns’ last four when Paul went down.

This year, Payne played just three minutes in Game 1, then ramped up for a potential larger role in Game 2 with Tyrese Maxey questionable due to illness. Maxey scored 35 points in 44 minutes. Payne never left the bench.

Payne was a little disappointed. But he didn’t let it linger. Instead, he spent the extra rest day flying in his trainer and working for two extra hours on his own to stay sharp.

Savvy enough to know that Nurse might be looking for some kind of jolt, he made sure to focus on the little details early in Game 3 – tendencies on both ends of the court, areas to exploit, gaps to drive or soft spots off ball – in case he got a chance.

Just like his energy – “energy costs nothing,” he offered in his podium mini-TED Talk – his resilience is cultivated over his travels.

“All the young people out there, it’s definitely hard,” he said. “But that’s just how the NBA is. You’ve got to stay ready. Your opportunity can come at any point of time. Like myself, I got called today and I stepped up to the plate and I was ready to play.”

Payne entered to start the second quarter. He started by feeding Nic Batum for a 3-pointer, then canned a 26-footer. Next time down, Batum found Payne for another triple.

“I kind of had a feeling I was going to play,” Payne said. “They mentioned it here and there. But also just from me watching the game, sometimes you watch the game and I can tell where I can help us, and I stay ready for this. They didn’t really have to say anything. I felt it coming my way.”

In less than four minutes, he’d provided more offense than Kelly Oubre Jr. in Game 2 or Buddy Hield in both New York games combined. And he stoked the Wells Fargo Center crowd for good measure.

“He’s so positive,” Maxey said. “Everybody says I’m positive, but he’s extremely positive. He’s just jumping around, having a great time and makes you want to go out there and really compete with your brothers. He’s always vocal on the bench. He’s telling not just me but everybody to stay aggressive, stay ready, go out there and be who you are. We appreciated him for being who he was tonight.”

Payne provided 16 minutes total, including several in the fourth. He was 4-for-7 from the field for 11 points, plus three assists and two blocks. He was a plus-9.

He added a 3-pointer with 1:43 left in the third quarter, sandwiched between jumpers from Jalen Brunson, who scored 39 points for the Knicks. As much as Joel Embiid’s back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers in the third helped daze the Knicks, triples by Oubre and Payne finally unlatched them.

Payne’s contributions were pivotal Thursday. But they were only possible thanks to the process-oriented approach he’s honed, on that keeps something very simple at its heart.

“I like having fun,” he said. “It’s still a child’s game. I love having fun out there, and I feel like once the crowd gets going and once we get into it, it’s an even better team out there.”