WIZARDS

For­mer team­mates bat­tling in paint in play­offs’ first round

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY TODD DYBAS

Through­out Wash­ing­ton’s Game 1 win Sun­day, Gor­tat set his frame and braced for Howard to ram him. Most 6-foot-10, 240-pound men don’t en­counter some­one else who is able to bang them around. But, that’s the case when Gor­tat faces Howard, who re­mains a hefty, if at time unin­spired, 265-pound barge.

Their sta­tis­ti­cal re­sults were about even in the opener, which means Gor­tat came out on top. For the Wizards to win, Gor­tat has to be solid. For At­lanta to up­set Wash­ing­ton, Howard has to be ex­tremely ef­fec­tive in a league that has gone away from the in-the-paint al­ba­tross and more to the shoot­ing big man.

In ad­di­tion to the sta­tis­ti­cal rub — Gor­tat finished with 14 points and 10 re­bounds, Howard seven points and 14 re­bounds — Gor­tat ap­peared su­pe­rior to those watch­ing. He has long been re­garded as one of the league’s best rim-run­ning big men. Gor­tat honed the trait next to Steve Nash in Phoenix and now ex­ploits it with John Wall. Against Howard in Game 1, Gor­tat was able to box out, see oth­ers re­bound, then run to the other end for layups or dunks. Quickly, he would run straight back to meet Howard in the paint after the Hawks’ big man chose to stay on the of­fen­sive end in­stead of sprint­ing back.

Wizards backup cen­ter Ian Mahinmi stood watch­ing from the bench. His strained left calf has forced him out of at least the first two games of the se­ries against At­lanta. Mon­day, Mahinmi worked on his shoot­ing form with sta­tion­ary drills after prac­tice ended. He, like Kelly Oubre (knee) and Ja­son Smith (knee) did not prac­tice. But, Mahinmi put in his work with­out a walk­ing boot on or exercise sleeve over his calf. That’s a change from prior days.

When Mahinmi watched Game 1, he thought about the “phys­i­cal­ity” other big men have to de­liver when deal­ing with Howard, still mas­sive and stun­ningly fit for 31 years old.

“[Howard’s] go­ing to have days where stuff goes well for him and he’s go­ing to have nights like [Game 1] where Marc did a good job,” Mahinmi said. “It’s never re­ally a one-on-one type of things. Some­times, you’re go­ing to have to help and you’re go­ing to have to rely on your guards to help you.”

Late in the se­cond quar­ter Sun­day, Gor­tat turned to slam into Howard. It was more of mak­ing sure he de­liv­ered the ini­tial shot as op­posed to pre­par­ing to cor­ral the ball. Gor­tat’s open­ing blow stunned Howard enough that Otto Porter came from the weak­side to reach out and pull in the re­bound. Porter gave an out­let pass to Wall, Gor­tat be­gan to sprint and four sec­onds later Gor­tat had a layup. Howard never made it be­low the three-point line. After scor­ing, Gor­tat sprinted back to meet Howard in the paint.

“That’s a key,” Gor­tat said. “Keep him off his sweet spots. He still caught the ball a few times in­side the paint. At that point, you’ve got to do your best. Try to con­test the shot. I guess, that’s my strength. Run­ning the court. I got to do that ev­ery day. I don’t weigh 280 pounds with two per­cent body fat. I got four and I got to run as much as pos­si­ble.”

De­spite the mod­ern clashes and blud­geon­ing of yesteryear, there’s no ill will be­tween Gor­tat and Howard.

“I truly re­spect the guy,” Gor­tat said. “We’re go­ing to have our lit­tle shov­ing matches and pushes and garbage talk­ing. But, at the end of the day, he’s my vet. He took care of me back in Or­lando. I’ll never forget what he did for me and he made me a bet­ter player.”

Once the Wizards learned the At­lanta Hawks would be their first-round play­off op­po­nent, Marcin Gor­tat knew he was in for another jaw-rat­tling tus­sle with Dwight Howard.

The two be­gan their thump­ing dance in 2008, when Gor­tat was an Or­lando Magic rookie prac­tic­ing daily along­side then-team­mate Howard. At the time, Howard was a 22-year-old freak in his fourth sea­son who used mas­sive shoul­ders to lead the league in re­bound­ing. Gor­tat was a 23-year-old Pol­ish im­port about to learn hard lessons in the NBA.

“One thing I re­ally love about Dwight, is after the game he doesn’t take any­thing per­son­ally,” Gor­tat said. “And, I’m not go­ing to take any­thing per­son­ally even though he made me bleed ev­ery day for the first four years in the NBA. I bleed ev­ery day in the prac­tice and I learned to play tough bas­ket­ball and he made me who I am to­day.

“I was go­ing against an an­i­mal in the prac­tice. Imag­ine the stuff that is go­ing on here in a game, imag­ine the same stuff go­ing on three times harder in a prac­tice where you don’t have whis­tles, fouls, stuff like that. For me, it was pretty much about sur­viv­ing a prac­tice and go­ing to the weight room ev­ery day, lift hard, be­cause other­wise, I’m go­ing to end up in the hos­pi­tal or a wheel­chair. I knew ex­actly what it is de­fend­ing Dwight from the first four years. You bet­ter not lose your fo­cus or he’s go­ing to pun­ish you.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

De­spite years of bat­tling each other on the court, the At­lanta Hawks’ Dwight Howard and Wash­ing­ton Wizards’ Marcin Gor­tat hold no ill will to­ward each other.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

As a rookie with the Or­lando Magic in 2008, Wash­ing­ton Wizards cen­ter Marcin Gor­tat (left) bat­tled At­lanta Hawks cen­ter Dwight Howard ev­ery day in prac­tice.

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