ORLANDO, Fla. — Early in the fourth quarter, feeling better than he had at almost any time this season, Mario Hezonja was on the court waiting for play to resume after a timeout. While "Stuff," the Orlando Magic mascot, attempted an over-the-head halfcourt shot, Hezonja positioned himself near the rim, leaped and blocked the attempt, drawing loud boos from the Amway Center crowd.
When the mascot converted another attempt shortly after that, Hezonja greeted him with open arms, hugging him and winning over the crowd again. In a season where little seems to matter anymore, that mattered to Hezonja. While nights without ever getting on the court have become a fairly common occurrence for Hezonja this season, getting on the court in Orlando, where he spent the first three seasons of his career, mattered.
“I told him earlier in the season, I said the last game we play against Orlando, no matter where you are in the rotation, I promise I’ll start you,” Fizdale explained Wednesday morning. “Because he wants to come back here and play well and give it a shot. Why not?”
"Why not" is the operative phrase for the Knicks as they shamble through the final games of another lost season. Hezonja got the start in place of Luke Kornet, who’d scored a career-high 24 points in the last game, and responded by scoring a career-high 29 points -- along with nine rebounds and five assists in 34 minutes -- before fouling out. The result for the Knicks was the same as most nights, a 114-100 loss.
While the game meant nothing to the Knicks, the Magic moved into a playoff spot with the win, passing the Miami Heat and tying the Nets for seventh place
Wednesday night’s game against the Magic provided a reward for Hezonja, who is almost certainly completing his only season in New York. The Knicks took a chance on the former No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. But a free agent at season’s end, he is not the primary target for a franchise with its sights set on stars.
"I’m 24 and I still don’t know how to control my energy," Hezonja said. "I’m just like that. I’m all over the place. For me, it’s not even basketball anymore. i don’t have to think like defensively what to do offensively. Just control my emotions more. There was a lot of emotions out there, but thank God in terms of basketball anything wasn’t crazy out there. As long as I could keep a cool head and concentrate on what’s going on on the floor I’d be all right."
The Knicks have little else to play for, so Fizdale has given a few of his players a chance to shine in cities that mean something to them. He played DeAndre Jordan 34 minutes when the Knicks hosted the Clippers last month.
“Yeah, in a season like this,” Fizdale said. “If you’re really fighting for something -- playoff seeding and things like that -- I wouldn’t be doing things like that. These games count from our development standpoint and us growing. But at the same time, if I have an opportunity to reward a guy or give a guy a chance to play major minutes against a team that he previously played for, then I want to do that for him.”
Hezonja appreciated the opportunity, still keeping his home in Orlando and thankful of the way he was treated by the franchise and fans in this city even as the team -- and he -- struggled.
“The reception, I don’t give a damn,” Hezonja said. “But I want to thank them for the first three years. We were like mostly down with many unfortunate circumstances . . . so I want to thank them for their support. Now that I’m on another team, they’re still supporting me and that means a lot.
“Never (booed). Never. . . . I’m grateful for that. I’m really thankful.”
"I’m just really happy for him," Fizdale said. "It’s something we talked about a while ago, that I said, no matter what I’m going to start you this game. I want you to go out there and really play hard, perform for Orlando. Show them that you are a player and you’re going to be in this league a long time. I really thought he came out and showed what he can do."
Notes & quotes: With Kadeem Allen left back in New York as he goes through concussion protocol and Dennis Smith Jr. still sidelined with a back problem the Knicks added Billy Garrett, who spent two years with the Westchester Knicks of the G League. “This is what you work for,” Garrett said. “It’s been a goal of mine my entire life. To get the shot with the organization I started with in the G League level is a good feeling. I spent a lot of time at that level to allow me to develop my game and grow to the NBA level. It’s a dream come true.” Garrett played 11 minutes, scoring four points.