Marcin Gortat will know what kind of night he’ll be in store for the moment he glances across the court to see the Houston Rockets in pregame warmups on Saturday. Gortat will have his hands full if Dwight Howard is jovial, laughing, joking around and throwing down ferocious dunks in the layup line.
“Then we’re in trouble,” Gortat said as the Wizards prepare to host the Rockets on Saturday at Verizon Center. “Because I know his mind is free. He’s ready to have fun and that’s the worst part.”
Gortat has only faced four times in the regular season, but he acquired considerable knowledge about the NBA’s best big man by serving as his backup for 3 1/2 years with the Orlando Magic. Howard’s body language would always let Gortat know if he’d have a rough and overly physical practice, or if the opposing team’s big man was going to get punished with a barrage of dunks and blocks.
“I feel like I really know him well,” Gortat said. “I know him from a mental standpoint. There were days I could read him like an open book. I knew when he’s engaged, when he’s down or something.”
That knowledge hasn’t necessarily contributed to Gortat having much success against his former teammate. Since the Magic traded him to Phoenix in December 2010, Gortat is just 1-4 in head-to-head matchups against Howard, the seven-time all-star and three-time defensive player of the year.
Howard has averaged 20 points and 15 rebounds against Gortat. Gortat has started in the four of the five games, averaging 9.2 points and 5.4 rebounds, but came out ahead in one of three matchups last season. He had 14 points and 12 rebounds as the Suns beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 92-86. Howard only had nine points on 4-of-9 shooting but finished with 14 rebounds.
“Well, when he played in Orlando, it was tough, the whole offense was going around him and he was getting a lot of touches. But I had some decent games against him,” Gortat said of Howard. “He is a dominant big man. He give us a lot of problems, but I’m hoping I will stay in single coverage and play him one-on-one.”
Gortat credits Howard with making him stronger and more aggressive during some extremely physical practices in Orlando. Gortat went from being scrawny to sculpted and had to discover some wily means to gain any sort of advantage.
“I had to survive against him and I know one thing, he’s not the same player in the regular game that he is in practice, where you don’t have any whistles or rules,” Gortat said. “I know that I’m going to be able to use my charges and stuff like that but practices, it’s pretty much hell to defend this guy. He’s not trying to save you. I play against for four years. I learned to survive. I had to really hit the weight room hard because otherwise I won’t be here today.”
Howard and Gortat made two trips to the Eastern Conference finals and reached the NBA Finals in 2009 with the Magic but both are now on their third teams. Gortat was traded to Washington in late October and Howard became the rare free agent to leave the Lakers seeking a better opportunity to win elsewhere.
In his first season with the Rockets, Howard is averaging 17.8 points and 12.9 rebounds for a team that likes to surround him with three-point shooters and give him ample room to operate inside.
A night after limiting Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert to 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting, Gortat has to quickly regroup.
“Quite honestly, it’s one of the matchups I’m always waiting for,” Gortat said. “I’m definitely going to need those fouls, because I’m going to use the fouls. The most important thing is make sure he doesn’t get to the paint easy. Do everything to push him out of the paint. Let him make a jump shot. End of the day, he’s going to make a few. We got to live with that.
Try to attack him to. Put him in a pick-and-roll situation. I’m going to eat well today. Again, I’m going to eat well today. I need that.”