ORLANDO, Fla. — Mario Hezonja has certainly had challenges during his rookie season with the Orlando Magic.
There have been flashes but there have been nights when little seemed to go right. Through it all, the Magic’s first-round (fifth overall) pick in the 2015 has never lacked for confidence.
Hezonja’s belief in himself proved crucial Monday night as he knocked down the biggest shot of the game to secure the Magic’s 107-98 win over Milwaukee in the home finale.
With the Bucks closing in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, Hezonja stepped up and buried a 3-pointer to push the Magic’s lead to 103-96 with 2:25. Milwaukee had rallied within four points after trailing by as many as 20.
"I just wanted to get it to the advantage we had before, we had maybe 10 or 15," Hezonja said. "I took it because of that."
The 3-pointer capped an impressive night for Hezonja, who finished with 19 points and career highs in assists with seven and steals (five) in a game in which he started in place of injured Victor Oladipo, who was out with a concussion.
"We didn’t think he would hesitate, but we had a couple good ball-movement sequences," said Magic coach Scott Skiles. "Evan (Fournier) made the extra pass, (Hezonja) knocked down the one that we really needed."
There was never any doubt in Hezonja’s mind that he would take the shot if given the opportunity to stop the Bucks’ momentum.
His clutch basket allowed the Magic to close out the home season on a positive note. They won five of their final six games at home and finished the year 23-18 at the Amway Center, which is the first time in four years they have won more than 20 games at home. The Magic (35-46) won 10 more games at home than they did last season and with one game remaining at Charlotte, have already improved their overall win total by 10 games over a year ago.
"We really wanted to win this one, even if we were on a back-to-back," said Fournier, referencing the loss at Miami on Sunday. "(The fans) were here all season long. The crowd was really good again tonight. It’s just a good feeling. We feel good about ourselves."
In a night where the Magic were missing three starters in the lineup, the subs came up big. Ersan IIyasova, who started in place of Aaron Gordon (concussion), led the team with 22 points on 10-of-13 shooting, including 2 for 2 from 3-point range. Center Dewayne Dedmon added 17 points and eight rebounds while filling in for Nikola Vucevic, who sat out with a groin and leg injury.
The Bucks were healthier but their front-line players were simply outplayed by Orlando as they fell behind 58-44 at halftime and by 20 points late in the third quarter as a combination of Jason Smith, Fournier and Dedmon dominated Bucks center Greg Monroe and power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo early.
Milwaukee did bounce back and manage to make a game of it down the stretch with Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton both hitting big shots on the perimeter and driving the ball. Monroe led the Bucks with 23 points, while Parker and Middleton had 17 points apiece.
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"When you’re down in this league, you have to be perfect," said Bucks coach Jason Kidd, whose team moved to 33-48 heading into its season finale on Wednesday. "Whether it’s two minutes or three minutes, your defense has to be perfect. And offensively you have maybe a small margin of error because of the 3-point shot."
Bucks: Monroe scored 15 of his 21 points in the first quarter on 6-of-11 shooting in 9:38. He didn’t score in the second quarter. …The Bucks were outscored in the paint 42-24 in the first half.
Magic: Orlando was without three starters. Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon missed their second straight game with concussion symptoms. Vucevic sat out with a groin and right leg injury.