Mario Hezonja discusses the Orlando Magic's 114-110 loss to the Detroit Pistons in this postgame video
DETROIT — Orlando Magic officials envisioned big things for Mario Hezonja when they selected him fifth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. They saw enough raw talent and physical ability in Hezonja to regard him as a potential cornerstone player.
Late Sunday afternoon, two and a half years after the Magic picked him, Hezonja finally showed some extended glimpses of that talent. He swished one 3-pointer after another, scored a career-high 28 points and contributed to a frantic fourth-quarter rally that nearly propelled the Magic over the Detroit Pistons.
Afterward, when asked if he felt any satisfaction from his individual performance on offense, he answered, "Not at all because we didn't win."
True, it was a bittersweet performance, with an extra heavy emphasis on the "bitter." Orlando lost to the Pistons 114-110 at Little Caesars Arena. The undermanned Magic can point to Hezonja's big scoring night or how furiously they fought late in the game. But nothing can overshadow how they keep falling further behind in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Frank Vogel discusses the Orlando Magic's 114-110 loss to the Detroit Pistons in this postgame video
"We didn't quit," said coach Frank Vogel, whose team was missing Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and Arron Afflalo due to injuries. "We knew it's going to be imperfect out there, and we didn't guard well enough early in the game. But our guys didn't quit on the game and continued to fight and gave ourselves a chance in the end."
Hezonja put the rally in motion. After the Magic fell behind 105-81 with 7:00 remaining, Hezonja drained a 3-pointer. His trey ignited a 19-0 run that pulled the Magic within 105-100 with 2:40 to go.
After a Detroit turnover, Hezonja launched a 3-pointer from 28 feet, but it was off-target. A short while later, former Magic forward Tobias Harris scored on a driving layup that gave the Pistons the cushion they desperately needed.
Hezonja faulted himself for missing the shot and also for being late on close-outs to Detroit's 3-point shooters early in the game. Benefitting from their pick-and-roll game, featuring center Andre Drummond rolling to the hoop, the Pistons made 17 of their 34 attempts from deep. Hezonja wasn't to blame for all of the Pistons' success, of course, but the Pistons did try to exploit him on the Magic's defensive end.
Nikola Vucevic discusses the Orlando Magic's 114-110 loss to the Detroit Pistons in this postgame video
"When I concentrated on that, they started missing," Hezonja said. "But it was already too late. I'll watch the film and I have to improve a lot from what I've seen."
Defensive breakdowns and an inability to make shots consistently have prevented Hezonja from carving out a permanent role for himself during his Magic tenure, and he's receiving playing time now only because of the team's injuries.
"Mario's got some ability," Vogel said. "He's just a young player, like a lot of our guys on our team. He's going to have those spurts. He's going to make a lot of mistakes. But that's part of where we're at. We're a young team that's developing a lot of young guys. I was happy to see him have a bit of a breakthrough game tonight."
The Magic have lost 16 of their last 19 games and now hold an 11-20 record.
On Sunday, they wasted a nice performance from center Nikola Vucevic, who tallied 24 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists.
Jonathan Isaac discusses the Orlando Magic's 114-110 loss to the Detroit Pistons in this postgame video
"It's good that we didn't give in in that last quarter," Vucevic said. "We were down 20. Not a lot was going our way. We made a big push to come back."
The Magic's rally against the Pistons (17-13) mirrored the way Hezonja is trying to revive own career.
In October, the new front office tandem of president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond declined to exercise the Magic's team option on Hezonja for the 2018-19 season. The decision means Hezonja will become an unrestricted free agent in July.
With each performance, bad or good, he builds a résumé that other teams will study this offseason.
"We are already on the biggest stage in the world," Hezonja said. "Everybody is watching. Everybody looks at you through bad, through good — whatever you do, your preparation — and I'm aware of that."
On Sunday, he had a good individual day.
It just wasn't quite good enough to lift Orlando over Detroit.