Marcin Gortat ecstatic to face Dwight Howard after stepping out of his prodigious shadow

PHOENIX — For three and a half years, Marcin Gortat took blow after vicious blow from a beast of a sparring partner every day in practice. He would go hard for three hours only to have to venture back into The Octagon to battle that same guy in individual workouts after practice, brutal work that he accepted only because he knew how much it was helping him improve.

After finally stepping out from Dwight Howard’s immense shadow while establishing himself in Phoenix following his trade to the Suns in December, Gortat will get his chance to exact a little revenge on Superman when the Suns and Magic lock horns Sunday afternoon.

“Dwight is a earthquake, tsunami and thunderstorm in one thing,” Gortat said. “He’s a load. I was taking a lot of hits for three and a half years and I always thought one day there’s going to be a game where I’m going to face him in a game with real referees, and it’s going to be a different story. We’ll see tomorrow.”

After those three-plus years plying his craft behind Howard, Gortat has thrived with the increased opportunities in Phoenix, where he must battle Robin Lopez for playing time rather than the league’s best center.

After averaging a mere 3.7 points and 4.4 rebounds in 13.3 minutes per game over 175 games (five starts) during his three-plus seasons in Orlando, Gortat has exploded  for 11.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in 27.6 minutes per game with the Suns. His numbers have steadily improved every month, with Gortat going for 10.7 and 8.1 in January, 13.3 and 9.3 in February and 14.6 and 12.2 thus far in March.

He’s a bench player in name only, averaging 30.1 minutes in February and 33.8 in March as he’s gotten the bulk of the playing time at the center position.

But as Gortat said, “It all started with Dwight.”

“Every day he would say something, I would say back, every day was a hit, every day was a fight, every day I bleed most of the time,” Gortat said. “It’s fun, I’m telling you, it’s fun. You’re getting really tougher playing against this guy for three and a half years. Later you’re stepping out on the court and trust me, there’s nobody else in the NBA that can hurt you. When you play against this guy every day there’s nobody else, nobody else.”

As much as Gortat made his upcoming duel with Howard sound like a battle for the world’s heavyweight belt, Howard downplayed it, saying he just wants to get a win after the Magic suffered a bad loss to the Warriors Friday night.

But he must understand what this game means to Gortat as he always used to tell the Polish big man, “The same way you battle in practice is the same way you’ve got to battle in the game.”

Gortat said he knows Howard so well he could write a book on him and The Polish Hammer is confident such familiarity will breed success.  Or at least relative success since he knows nobody can shut down Superman, a player who averages 22.8 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.

“I know what frustrates this guy, I know what moves he likes to do, what kind of moves [Magic assistant] Patrick [Ewing] is teaching him, so I would say I have a little advantage over the rest of the guys in the league,” Gortat said, “but at the end of the day it’s still about having big balls and holding the ground with a guy who’s trying to kick your ass.

“It’s not easy when you have a 280-pound guy with a smile on his face trying to crush your face. You’ve got to be tough, his elbows are hard. Rocks.”

From the minute he arrived in Phoenix, Gortat boasted that he was 100 percent confident that he would make a big impact upon stepping out of Superman’s shadow, strong words from a man who had never averaged more than four points and four rebounds per game in a season.

Gortat has delivered everything he promised and more, which has not surprised his former head coach Stan Van Gundy one bit.

Van Gundy saw Gortat pining for this opportunity since Orlando matched a five-year, $34 million offer sheet from Dallas before the start of the 2009-10 season. Gortat was coming off a solid playoff stint during Orlando’s 2009 run to the NBA Finals, and Van Gundy saw how tough it was for him to return to a bit role when Orlando matched the offer sheet.

But instead of just waiting for his opportunity Gortat continued working and preparing for it, as according to Van Gundy his development “has been off the charts” due to his elite work ethic. That was on display once again Saturday afternoon with Gortat staying long after any of his teammates to work on post moves in advance of this meeting with Howard.

“We knew how good he was,” Van Gundy said. “He was a hard guy to give up. We obviously had matched Dallas’ offer the year before when people didn’t think we would and the whole thing. And he’s perfectly suited, this is a perfect system for him because his real strength offensively is as a pick-and-roll player.

“He’s got great hands, he can finish at the basket, and he’s playing with one of the best pick-and-roll guards in the history of the game. I’m not surprised that he’s been able to do what he could do, and he’s always been able to defend and rebound. He’s an outstanding player, not surprised at all.”

Gortat has established himself as a bonafide center in this league, going for 14-18, 13-16 and 13-13 just this month.

But on Sunday afternoon he will get his first opportunity to show Howard just how much he’s learned from the master on a national setting.

“I’ve got my new chapter opened up in the new book,” Gortat said.

Tags: Dwight Howard Marcin Gortat

  • Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    You know, I love this guy. So many reasons but I’ll try to keep my man-crush in check.

    I don’t get to DDL very often, (more of you VoTS regulars should come represent), mainly because I’m on the other side of the world and normally miss it when it’s live, but the other day I suggested that Gortat could end up being an 18 / 10 guy in the valley.

    I was beaten back severely.

    One major point that was made [by fellow Suns fan Andrew] was that Gortat’s numbers are so good because he plays with Steve Nash.

    That would be a valid point but, consider the way his minutes are distributed when placed along side the way Nash’s minutes are distributed.

    He misses around 15 “Nash Minutes” played because of RoLo who is almost always on the court with Nash but never without him. He also misses another six to seven minutes of “NM” when Nash sits & Gortat is in with the bench.

    So really he gets around 30 minutes a game now and, on a good day, perhaps half of that is with Two Time.

    Basically what I’m saying is that with or without Nash, Gortat balls hard on the floor and unlike oh, I don’t know, 90% of Suns players who have ever been on a Nash team, (pretty much Minus Sun Tzu, Joe Johnson, and Grant Hill), he can do damage and help the team while making others around him better because they stay in a relative comfort zone with him taking care of the loose ends [and massive rebounding] for them.

    He also talks like an angry man intent on wanting to be glorious. Not quite Barkley territory, but you know he holds no punches and he wants people to be accountable, including himself.

    Why do I love him for all of that? The Future.

    While I’m still bitter, heartbroken, and full of hate over the trading of Dragon, I think that we could possibly have that foundation required for a post-Nash quality of life scenario.

    It looks like this guy is going to continue to improve and hey! They keep saying that you need a good big man in the middle. While I don’t know if he’ll ever have a statue in Yuma or Tuscon somewhere or if he’ll ever be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but he has the potential to be quite the beast in the middle.

    That being said, with a good quality center you don’t need a great point guard all of the time, (Jameer Nelson), and we already have quality shooters to compliment.

    I don’t know what he’s going to be able to do against Howard by himself if we don’t send any help. That guy is ferocious right now. I expect 40 / 16 from him regardless.

    It’s okay though. As long as Gortat remains in house, I don’t feel so bad about the possibility of Nash leaving after this season.

    Still full of malice over Dragon though. The pain..

  • AJ

    @KJL. You are completely wrong, 18-10 are you crazy. He is going to average waaaaay more than 10 boards a game, maybe closer 12. Lol.

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