Marcin Gortat was elated to escape the misery of 50-loss seasons when the Phoenix Suns traded him to the Wizards just before the regular season began. At the time Gortat was dealt, the Suns looked like a team that was gearing up for a run at the No. 1 pick in the NBA lottery.
But as Gortat welcomes his former teammates to Washington, Phoenix is in a three-team race with Memphis and Dallas for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. The Suns’ record (42-29) would be good for third place in the inferior Eastern Conference, where the Wizards rank sixth with a 36-34 ledger.
“I knew they were going to be a pretty good team but not that good,” Gortat said of the Suns. “Nobody, nobody anticipate that.”
While the Wizards appear to be in a more secure position to reach the postseason, Gortat is somewhat envious of the Suns because of a quality within the team that he has noticed from afar.
“They have that killer instinct every game,” Gortat said. “We only have that every third or fourth game we win in a row. We two games in a row, then that third or fourth game, we get that killer instinct. But we’ve got to maintain it for 82 games. We got to play better. Bottom line, we got to play better. These guys are playing well. They’ve got a great coaching staff, a great defensive coordinator, Mike Longabardi, from the Boston Celtics, and they all know how to play basketball.”
After watching his team blow an 11-point fourth quarter lead in Sacramento and a 14-point lead in Denver and let the Lakers whittle a 21-point lead down to seven, Coach Randy Wittman wouldn’t dispute Gortat assessment.
“That’s what this team’s got to learn. Whether it’s through the last three weeks of this season or as we move forward with this team, we don’t that edge of putting a team away, and sometimes that’s right away,” Wittman said. “We’ve seen it a lot. That’s got to be a conscious thing. You’ve got to have that killer … ‘This is it. We’re putting them away right here.’ Got to get better at that. He’s right.”
The Suns have 16 double digit wins, including three by at least 20 points, while the Wizards have only 11, with just one by 20 this season. Phoenix also has had overall differential of 2.7, compared to just 0.5 for the Wizards. Gortat still believes that there is some hope for his current team.
“I think a team has to develop and, at some point, it has to come from leaders, veterans,” Gortat said. “It has to be built in the team, kind of. We have to build it in a team and we have to learn to play a certain way. We had a game in L.A. where we should punch them, hit them in the third or fourth quarter and make sure they’re not going to get up. We got up by 20 and let the backups play. Unfortunately, we can’t do that. The same in Denver, at some point, we have lead by few points, we should hit them again, make sure we up 20 and let the backups play, but we don’t have that. Unfortunately, we’re not that team — yet.”
The Suns were expected to struggle after an offseason spent shipping out nearly all of their veteran pieces to acquire draft picks and promising talents. They have won six of seven, and four in a row, since Eric Bledsoe returned to the starting lineup after a right knee injury kept him out for nearly two months, including the Wizards’ 101-95 victory on Jan. 24 at US Airways Center. With Gerald Green heading back to the bench, the Suns have an impressive perimeter trio with Goran Dragic leading the way for most of the season.
When asked about the major difference in the Suns this season, Gortat said, “The coaching staff. That’s it. Just the mentality they brought, the culture the system they built is totally different. Nobody expected anything from these guys over there and they’re just playing freely. They are winning games, they have fun, they enjoying playing basketball. They have a lot of young guys, they still hungry. They want to play basketball. They been losing 50, 60 games a year, they know how it is to lose and at some point they said, ‘[Expletive] it. We want to win the games.’ They just say, ‘We want to win.’ And they come in and put in work.”