Marcin Gortat leading a block party in Phoenix

Marcin Gortat has turned in an elite stretch of shot blocking to start the season. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

Marcin Gortat has turned in an elite stretch of shot blocking to start the season. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

PHOENIX — Like a jilted lover following a bad breakup, Marcin Gortat was rather emphatic to anyone within an earshot of him during the preseason that he would be more than alright without Steve Nash in Phoenix.

Seven games in, it’s safe to say his offensive looks might not come as easily as they did over the past two seasons. That’s not a shot at Goran Dragic in the slightest, after all he’s probably been the most productive Sun during their 3-4 start to the campaign.

However, Gortat’s numbers without the numerous pick-and-roll opportunities — down in points, paint chances and shot attempts — give a good enough indication that life without Nash isn’t the same as life with Nash.

Don’t get me wrong, the Polish Hammer/Polish Gazelle/or whatever other nickname Phoenix’s center wishes to go by is still an interior force opposing defenses have to account for. His frame and offensive abilities dictate a guy who should be a walking double-double. And he has been just that, averaging 12.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per game (fifth-best in the NBA).

But none of that is as relevant as the new weapon in Gortat’s arsenal. Sure, he’s always had it in some sense, but the Suns’ big man has taken the league by storm this year with his swats rather than his slams and swishes.

The new sultan of swat

Entering Monday night’s game against the Nuggets, Gortat is averaging a league-leading 3.86 blocks per game/5.47 per 48 minutes, more than a block per game better than last season’s leader in the department, Serge Ibaka.

In Phoenix’s season opener against the Warriors, his four third quarter blocks served as a catalyst for a 17-point comeback by the Suns. And though they ended up losing the game late, Gortat’s career-high five swats were just a sign of things to come.

In the history of the Suns franchise, no player has had more than three games of five blocks or more in a single season. Gortat has already achieved that feat after his five blocks helped Phoenix secure its largest home comeback win Friday night against the Cavaliers.

27 blocks is staggering and the most the NBA has seen by a single player through seven games since the 2004-2005 season — Andrei Kirilenko had over 30. Not even former teammate Dwight Howard has had more to start a season, as the most he’s recorded in seven games was 25 back in 2008-2009.

At first mention of the blocks, Gortat admitted he was surprising himself. After all his 1.5 per game average last season was the highest of his career. But then as you dig a little deeper, it’s clear the five-year veteran views his rise as an elite swatter as a chance to gain a level of respect he feels is rightfully deserved.

“I’m just blocking right now, I guess I’m invisible,” Gortat said. “If they just don’t respect me, then I guess I will have to disrespect them.”

What Gortat may not realize, however, is that his rim protection prowess has rubbed off on his teammates — Jermaine O’Neal (1.33 bpg) and Michael Beasley (1.0 bpg). He’s not the only one getting respect these days, the entire team — even without the likes of Robin Lopez and Channing Frye — has officially been put on block watch.

The Suns are tied with Utah as the leading shot-blocking team in the NBA with nearly eight swats per contest. No team in franchise history has ever led the league in that category. The closest the Suns have come was in 2007-08 when Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion (until his trade to Miami) and Brian Skinner helped the team to the league’s second-best total (6.72 per game).

“We’ve never been a great shot-blocking team, but I think Marcin has done a great job,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “I don’t know the particular reason for the blocks. I can say he has done a great job with it and because of it our rim protection has gotten much better.”

Too much of a good thing

Every coin has two sides, and that is certainly the case with Gortat’s rise to swat supremacy. Of his 27 blocks on the year, only six have come against players over 6-foot-7  (David Lee, Tayshaun Prince, Jason Maxiell and Glen Davis). There is nothing wrong with a big man making a huge block while playing help-side defense — as was the case with his game-changing swat against Dion Waiters Friday night — but Gortat’s opportunities have increased this season largely because the Suns have not developed a defensive presence on the perimeter.

Ray Allen, J.J. Redick, B.J. Mullens, E’Twaun Moore and Daniel Gibson are all shaking their heads as we speak.

If not for the lowly Bobcats, the Suns would be the worst team statistically against three-point shooting (43.5 pecent). They are only slightly better in field goal percentage allowed (46.1 percent), coming in at No. 23 in the league.

The numbers aren’t much better in the paint as the Suns give up nearly 45 points a night in that category, as well. And even with the increase in blocked shots, Phoenix is still in bottom tier of teams in terms of turnovers forced (15.1 per game).

“It’s one of those deals were [the blocked shots] are good but on the flip side of that you would hope [other teams] wouldn’t have that many opportunities,” said Gentry. “We would hope our perimeter defense is such that we aren’t getting broken down enough where they would have opportunities to block that many shots.”

This team has guys who get after it defensively at least in the effort department — Dragic, P.J. Tucker and Jared Dudley — but without a perimeter defender like Grant Hill or Raja Hill, opposing guards and small forwards will continue to exploit the glaring deficiency currently present in the Suns’ defensive scheme.

Both the paint and perimeter numbers speak to the same issue. Dual-threat offensive players — who can shoot and drive — have the option to pick their poison against the Suns. Three-point shooters can also be patient knowing that eventually a breakdown will allow them the chance to fire from distance.

And because Phoenix is still in search of its main offensive weapon, defensively-challenged players like Shannon Brown and Michael Beasley will continue to see big minutes leaving Gortat to have to try and clean up their mess on a nightly basis.

The good news and the bad news

The good news is through seven games Gortat appears to be engaged at both ends of the court. That seems simple enough, but there have been plenty of instances since his arrival in the Valley where the former second-round pick came out looking listless and uninterested.

“It’s not just the blocks, I’ve just got to be consistent with everything,” Gortat said. “I know I’m being looked at as one of the main guys on this team, so I need to come out with energy every night regardless of how things are going.”

His head coach is in complete agreement.

“He’s just got to be focused,” Gentry said. “There isn’t a magic potion or formula. You get engaged, you play and if you are supposed to make rotations, you do it.”

The bad news is he’s probably been a little too engaged at the defensive end, especially trying to protect the rim. His league-leading block total is a nice anecdote after seven games, but it also indicates he’s being viewed as a security blanket. And with the amount of scouting done across the league, teams will begin to game plan against that.

In the Suns’ 94-81 loss to Utah Saturday, sure Gortat didn’t look good from the field — missing all six shots he took — but what was more alarming was the way in which the Jazz attacked Phoenix. Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and even to some extent Derrick Favors tried to pull Gortat away from the basket, so whether they were attempting a shot or one of their teammates was on the opposite side, he couldn’t possibly get back in time to help. Utah’s trio of post players combined for 55 points, but it was the ease with which Gordon Hayward and Marvin Williams got to hoop that should have left a bad taste in the mouths of Gentry and his coaching staff.

Not every team has the number of athletic big men who can keep Gortat from hovering around the paint like Tyrone Corbin has at his disposal, but what looks to be a welcomed sight early on the season, may not be as the Suns head into December and January.

It’s Gortat’s block party for now, and by all means fans in the Valley should enjoy it for what it is. But if the Suns continue to play the part of the gracious host, will the Polish Hammer be able to continue his frenetic pace?

Tags: Marcin Gortat

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