PHOENIX — For three and a half years,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 battlefor 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.