INDIANAPOLIS — A scheduling mix-up earlier in the Eastern Conference semifinals here resulted in Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat sitting in a nearly empty postgame interview room. There was no chance of Gortat being left alone Tuesday night after he dominated the Indiana Pacers in a 31-point, 16-rebound performance that helped the Wizards stave off elimination.
After dropping three straight in the series, including squandering a 19-point lead in losing Game 4 at Verizon Center, the Wizards needed someone to set a strong tone from the opening tip in Game 5. Who better to fill the role than the man known as the Polish Hammer?
“More than three reporters” this time, the affable big man joked, recalling his previous experience in the room. Gortat had reason to be all smiles.
With Gortat leading a relentless charge, the Wizards outrebounded the Pacers by the stunning margin of 62-23 . Washington had an 18-4 edge on offensive rebounds. “They just dominated the game,” Pacers power forward David West said, embarrassment evident in his somber tone.
West’s sentiment was understandable. In a potential close-out game, the East’s No. 1 seed got pushed and folded.
During the first quarter, it quickly became clear the Wizards wouldn’t go away without a fight. Gortat started fast. He scored 11 points, grabbed six rebounds and the Wizards led by six points entering the second.
To achieve playoff success on the road, it helps to take the home crowd out of the game early. Gortat’s big opening act was just what the Wizards needed to make fans nervous en route to the 102-79 blowout victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“That was huge,” productive reserve forward Drew Gooden said of Gortat’s fast start.
“Every competitor in this league [hopes to step] up to a challenge. He felt like he didn’t have the best game for us last game. But the way he bounced back, it made up for last game. He did a phenomenal job setting the tone.”
Since arriving in a trade shortly before the season began, Gortat has been a big part of the best Wizards season in a long, long time. A consistent low-post force throughout the season, Gortat kept it going in the first-round victory over the Chicago Bulls.
Gortat would have been an obvious candidate to deliver Tuesday’s a get-on-my-back show. But he had disappeared lately.
Although Gortat wasn’t as disappointing as all-star point guard John Wall — who also finally showed up in a game the Wizards led by as many as 30 points — he played little while struggling in both Games 3 and 4 (Gortat sat out the entire fourth quarter in the previous game). Apparently, the rest served him well.
“He played big for us early,” forward Trevor Ariza said. “It got him going . . . and the most important thing was that it got us going.”
Layups, putbacks, left-handed moves, right-handed moves – Gortat displayed his entire offensive repertoire in the first 12 minutes. He left the Pacers dizzy.
“He got the same looks” as he did in Games 3 and 4, West said. On Tuesday, “Gortat got into a very good rhythm,” West continued. “The game is about rhythm. He saw his first couple go in. He got some easy putbacks on the glass, offensive rebounds . . . he just had more juice than we had.”
It didn’t matter who the Pacers used on Gortat. Starting center Roy Hibbert had outplayed Gortat in the Pacers’ two victories at Verizon Center. In Game 5, Hibbert had only four points and two rebounds. Backup center Ian Mahinmi scored two points and produced a donut in the rebound column. They just couldn’t get past Gortat or match his energy. In the biggest game of the season, Gortat delivered.
“I told them that I was the offensive decoy in the Game 3 and Game 4, so now is the time to just perform,” Gortat said. “I talked to John. He was looking for me a little bit more. He put me in position to score. He gave me a few different looks inside, outside and I was able to contribute and obviously.
“When you score the first basket, second basket, you feel better. You feel the flow of the game and everything is working for you defensively and offensively. At some point in the middle of the game, it was fun to be in the game. Everything works, you feel immortal. You just want to go and score. I was glad my teammates put me in that situation.”
That was the plan. At the Wizards’ shoot-around Tuesday afternoon, Coach Randy Wittman spent a good amount of time counseling and encouraging Gortat. His message? Let’s forget about yesterday and take care of business today.
“We needed him tonight,” Wittman told Gortat. “Game 4 was over and tonight [would be] another ballgame. I wanted him to come out and be aggressive right from the start.”
Wittman did his part to help Gortat, instructing Wall to look for the big man. The confidence Wittman showed in running plays for Gortat meant a lot, Gortat said.
“Nobody was happy with Game 4. Personally for me, it was one big hell,” said Gortat, who made 13 of 15 shots from the field. “Today, obviously, was a little bit better. The good thing about the NBA is that next day, or 48 hours, you have another game. I was glad I was able to help the team this time.”
In front of a packed interview room Tuesday, the center of attention had a blast. It was nearly as much fun as he had on the court.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.