Wizards’ Marcin Gortat makes surprising return from back injury

March 22
I've been healed! (EPA/MICHAEL NELSON)
I’ve been healed! (EPA/MICHAEL NELSON)

LOS ANGELES – Considering what had transpired the day before, Marcin Gortat’s decision to throw down a breakaway two-handed dunk late in the Wizards’ 117-107 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday at Staples Center was truly a testament to his dramatic 24-hour turnaround from a strained lower back. Or, it was really silly.

“Scared me,” Coach Randy Wittman said with a chuckle afterward. “That’s how he hurt his back.”

Gortat came up lame after dunking during pregame warmups on Thursday in Portland and missed his first game of the season, a 116-103 Wizards loss. The chances that he would play against the Lakers were slim as he struggled to get dressed and delicately walked out of the locker room at Moda Center.

But Gortat vowed that he would do everything he could to give it a shot, which sounded like an empty pledge until he showed up and contributed 13 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots in 33 minutes. Gortat even found himself in the middle of a little skirmish as he attempted to help separate Nick Young from Drew Gooden and started wrestling with Lakers forward Jordan Hill. Though it all, Gortat didn’t appear to be slowed by an injury that looked like it would have kept sidelined for at least a few days.

“It definitely surprised me,” Bradley Beal said. “That just shows his heart and his passion and his sacrifice for us. He didn’t have to play. He could’ve sat out and rested his back, but he felt good, gave it a go and did well.”

After the game, Gortat gave all of the credit for his rapid recovery to Mark Cheng, a Los Angeles-based specialist in Chinese medicine orthopedics who used some interesting tactics to get the 6-foot-11 big man upright and ready to play. As Cheng walked through the locker room chatting with Wizards head athletic trainer Eric Waters, Gortat kept shaking his head about the treatment Cheng applied to him.

“He actually just rubbed my knee and my calf and the pain went away,” Gortat said. “I swear, I don’t know how he did that. In 45 minutes, he fixed me to the point I could play. I wasn’t perfect. I still felt a little stiffness but then, when I get warmed up, I start feeling better and my agility and movement was perfect. All props go to him, so from now on he’s my hero.”

Gortat struggled with his shot early in the game but he altered several shots and controlled the glass, giving the Wizards a presence that they’ve had all season and sorely missed in Portland. After his fourth-quarter dunk gave the Wizards a 108-98 lead, Gortat rejected Jodie Meeks layup to give him a new season high in blocked shots.

“He gives us protection had the rim. When he’s not in there, we don’t have that. He’s given it to us all year, that you have to score over going to the basket,” Wittman said. “Kudos to our guys and their connections out here on the coast to get him some treatment. Last night we thought he was day to day, but he got here and he said: ‘You know what? I feel pretty good.’ I wasn’t anticipating that, but it was a pleasant surprise.”

Gortat has now started 67 games, which is a new career high, with 13 games remaining. With the Wizards still trying to make a push for home-court advantage in the first round of the NBA playoffs, Gortat wants to be around to assist the cause – and he plans to send Cheng an appropriate sign of his appreciation.

“I’m going to send him a few items, a few souvenirs from my country and I’m grateful for everything he did. He’s a great guy,” Gortat said of Cheng. “We tripped the last two games, we should have won the first games but we trip. [Portland] was a tough game. We miss guys and I couldn’t help. That’s why this game was really crucial. Then, another game against Denver is very important. We got to get those wins.”

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