Postgame Report: Magic at Pistons

By John Denton
Dec. 17, 2017

DETROIT – With their roster decimated by injuries and losses subsequently starting to pile up, the Orlando Magic have been forced to celebrate minor victories wherever they can find them.

On Sunday, getting prized rookie Jonathan Isaac back, seeing Mario Hezonja play with the efficiency missing much of the past two-plus seasons and pulling off a stirring fourth-quarter rally qualified as milestones for the slumping Magic.

Orlando will take any positives it can get now after a 114-110 defeat to the Detroit Pistons on Sunday pushed its losing streak to a disappointing five games.

The Magic (11-20) did anything but go quietly against the Pistons (17-13). Once down as much as 24 points, the Magic drilled five 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter and charged to within 105-100 of Detroit. However, Hezonja missed a long 3-pointer with 1:45 remaining and Orlando would get no closer, forcing it to settle for pushing the Pistons to the brink before losing again.

``Not a lot (of satisfaction), I mean, not at all (satisfied) because we came close and didn’t win,’’ said Hezonja, who set new career highs for points (28) and 3-pointers (eight). ``That (19-0 run) was really exciting and we were really close to getting the win and they didn’t expect our run at all. But I missed that shot that could have gotten us closer.’’

The Magic were without their top two scorers – Evan Fournier (sprained ankle) and Aaron Gordon (calf strain) – in addition to missing Terrence Ross (knee sprain) and Arron Afflalo (back spasms). That put the Magic in an uphill battle against the Pistons, who have followed up a seven-game losing skid with three straight victories.

That is, until the Magic finally strung together their best run of the night to make the final few minutes interesting. Seven of Orlando’s 10 baskets in the fourth quarter came off assists

``We didn’t quit,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``We know that it’s going to be imperfect out there and we didn’t guard well enough early on, but our guys didn’t quit on the game and we gave ourselves a chance in the end.’’

Isaac, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, played for the first time since spraining his right ankle on Nov. 11. He was limited to just 17 minutes as a precautionary measure and predictably struggled on the offensive end of the floor (zero-of-four shooting, 1 point), but he came through the game unscathed as it relates to his troublesome ankle.

``I did, I definitely did (have butterflies) and I’m surprised that (the media) are saying that I looked comfortable and I felt it,’’ Isaac said. ``But it went away after those first couple of minutes. It feels good to know how it feels after being out so long. In my warm up (the ankle injury) was a little in my head about it, but after I got out there I was good.’’

Hezonja, the No. 5 pick of the 2015 NBA Draft who has struggled much of the past two-plus seasons, had one of the best performances of his career. He scored 11 of Orlando’s first 13 points and easily topped his previous career high of 21 points with the game-high 28. He made 10 of 18 shots and eight of 12 3-pointers by aggressively seeking out shots and burying them even when guarded. The eight 3-pointers were another career high, doubling the four he made in Feb. of 2016 against the Thunder.

``(Hezonja) had a great game tonight and he was really shooting the ball and his decision-making was good as well,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, one of Hezonja’s biggest supporters on the team. ``He wasn’t rushing and he was taking his time. It’s not easy when you don’t play for so many games and then you come back and you are thrown out there with guys injured. You have to step up big-time and he did that. I’m happy for him.’’

Orlando fell on Sunday for a 16th time in the past 19 games when it allowed the Pistons to tie a franchise record with 17 3-pointers. Only one of those 3-pointers came in the fourth while the Magic were making their charge.

Lightly regarded forward Reggie Bullock burned Orlando for 20 points and four 3-pointers, while Tobias Harris (17 points) and Reggie Jackson (17 points) combined to make another six 3-pointers.

Hezonja took the heat for some of the defensive woes, blaming himself for letting Harris – a former Magic standout – get going early on from long-distance with open shots.

``Overall in the game, I didn’t do good enough closing onto their shooters,’’ Hezonja said. ``When I started concentrating on that they started missing, but it was already too late. I’ll watch the film and I’ll have to improve a lot.’’

Vucevic, who has done his best to keep the Magic in games of late, finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. He registered the first triple-double of his career last week in Atlanta and narrowly missed a second in another stellar all-around performance.

Elfrid Payton (15 points and seven assists) drilled his second 3-pointer of the game with 3:01 to play and Jonathon Simmons (23 points) converted a layup seconds later to get Orlando within 105-100. Those baskets allowed the Magic to rip off a 19-0 run to send a scare into Detroit and the sparse crowd inside the Little Caesars Arena. Payton missed his first shot of the game, but made his last six attempts – two of them coming from 3-point range.

Orlando’s comeback was necessitated by a 96-79 deficit following another rocky showing in the third period. For the game, the Magic made 48.2 percent of their shots, handed out 27 assists and connected on 17 of 33 3-pointers. In the fourth quarter alone, Orlando outscored Detroit 31-18 by drilling seven 3-point shots.

The Magic trailed 60-43 at intermission largely because of their pick-and-roll defense and their inability to take care of the basketball on the offensive end. Orlando surrendered a whopping 10 3-pointers in the game’s first 24 minutes with Harris (three), Bullock (three) and Jackson (two) accounting for eight of the made threes.

Orlando also did itself no favors on the offensive end by turning the ball over nine times, leading to 12 Pistons’ points.

Hezonja, in the starting lineup a fourth consecutive game, opened the game dialed in on the offensive end. He made his first three 3-point shots and scored 11 of the Magic’s first 13 point early in the game. However, his minutes waned in the second quarter because of defensive struggles and he didn’t score the rest of the game.

Vogel, who has been searching for weeks to find consistent production to make up for the Magic’s losses to injuries, was delighted to see Hezonja play the finest game of his career. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward has always shown flashes of being a standout player, but he’s always been held back by his shooting inconsistencies and his defensive woes. Vogel has high hopes that Sunday’s game – a fourth straight start for Hezonja – can spark a long run of success for the native of Croatia.

``Mario’s got some ability,’’ Vogel raved. ``Like a lot of young guys on our team, he’s going to have his (positive) spurts and he’s going to make a lot of mistakes. But that’s part of where we’re at – we’re a young team and we’re developing a lot of young guys. I was happy to see (Hezonja) have a break-through game.’’

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