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Preseason notebook: Hezonja excels as Magic stretch players' minutes

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In this notebook, Zach looks at Mario Hezonja's good night against New Orleans and how the team stretched out its starters.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Hezonja shines in win

Desperately needing a boost off their bench, the Orlando Magic got that on Wednesday night from rookie Mario Hezonja. Hezonja, who got pulled early during his first stint after a poor defensive play, put together his best game of the preseason so far, finishing with 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including four three-pointers. While his strong game is a welcome sign, the rookie still has plenty of work to do.

Checking in late in the first quarter, Hezonja was attacked immediately by the New Orleans Pelicans, giving up an easy bucket. Coach Scott Skiles quickly got Aaron Gordon up from the bench to spell Hezonja, but pulled Gordon back after Hezonja knocked down a pair of triples.

After sitting for much of the remainder of the first half, Hezonja got his chance to shine in the third quarter. With his team trailing and desperately needing a shot of energy, the Croatian sharpshooter came in and made an impact right away. On his first touch of the quarter, Hezonja knocked down a jumper. He then proceeded to make a pair of free throws at the end of the period to draw the Magic within four.

In the early portion of the fourth period, Hezonja knocked down a pair of three-pointers, the second of which gave the Magic a one-point endge. After Orlando missed three of its first four shots, Hezonja knocked down a pull-up from mid-range, once again giving the Magic a one-point lead. While he didn't score again, he had a key rebound in the overtime period that led to a three-pointer form Evan Fournier that all but locked up the Magic's victory.

Following the game, Coach Skiles talked about why he took the rookie out early. "What is happening to him... he checks into the game, whatever point we put him in, teams either go right at him or plays are occurring that he is not comfortable with and he gets taken advantage of often for the first few minutes he's in the game. He plays like three or four minutes and he is already minus six when he checks in," he said. "Once we get him out, he takes a deep breath and is always much better."

The performance was one that was important to see from Hezonja, who hasn't exactly had the strongest preseason. He's shown flashes, but Wednesday night was the first time we really saw just what he can bring to the table. He still has a lot of work to do, and is adjusting to the NBA game everyday, but in due time, could be doing big things for the young Magic team.

Stretching guys out

With only one preseason game remaining after Wednesday's win, the Magic began to stretch out their starters, playing them closer to the minutes they could be seeing come regular season time. While they were without starting point guard Elfrid Payton yet again due to a hamstring injury, and Gordon was limited after experiencing soreness in his surgically repaired foot, the starters and key rotational pieces who did play played well.

All five Magic starters played 27 minutes or more, with Victor Oladipo playing the fewest at 27, mainly due to foul trouble. Down the stretch, they relied on center Nikola Vucevic to get them big buckets, something he continued to do, single handedly carrying the team in the overtime period. Tobias Harris, who Skiles said didn't play late because of orders from the training staff, was one of the Magic's most aggressive players from the tip of the ball.

Getting the key players time together, especially late in a tight game, is highly important. They have to begin to feel each other out in those situations, and see what the others can do. While they may not have had the exact group that will close out games on the floor -- Hezonja, Channing Frye and Fournier played much of the fourth quarter and overtime -- it was good to see what a unit with those three, Vucevic and C.J. Watson, the team's only healthy point guard, could do.

Coach Skiles was pleased with his team overall, saying they did a good job of finishing the game. Despite the good, strong finish, he wasn't pleased with how his team played in the second quarter. "Our first quarter was really good. Our third quarter was very good. Out second quarter was awful. We sprinkled in that one bad quarter, like we have done. But, other than the second quarter, we played hard."

Getting a chance to see his guys in a late-game situation was important, and something that should give the Magic an added boost of confidence moving forward. While they had to finish it in overtime, they did a lot of good things, and they have another building block moving forward because of it.

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