INDIANAPOLIS – In the back of his mind, Drew Gooden had to wonder if those Bikram yoga sessions, individual workouts at an Orlando YMCA or Montgomery County fitness center and pickup games with NBA wannabes would wind up being in vain. Gooden had to hold on to the hope that eventually some team wouldn’t let him remain in unintentional retirement and give him a call after the Milwaukee Bucks flicked him away like loose lint.
If he ever experienced doubt, Gooden could always lean on the story of former NBA player Tim Thomas, who was discarded by the Chicago Bulls in 2006, buried and forgotten, until he re-emerged as an unlikely hero during the Phoenix Suns’ Amare Stoudemire-less run to the Western Conference finals.
“I used that as motivation that it can be done,” Gooden said.
The Wizards took a chance on Gooden, a seasoned veteran with NBA Finals experience, in late February and he helped the team withstand the absence of Nene when he went down with a sprained left knee. When Nene returned, Gooden watched his playing time diminish significantly and had to wait for the occasional crumbs. In the first round against the Chicago Bulls, Gooden received more than five minutes just once and sat the entire Game 5 clincher because of a coach’s decision.
Trevor Booker hogged most of the backup big man minutes against Chicago but when he struggled to summon his usual energy in the first half of Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers, Coach Randy Wittman went back to Gooden after Nene picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter of the Wizards’ 102-96 victory.
“Thanks to him, obviously, we got this win,” said Marcin Gortat, crediting Gooden for the Wizards’ dominance on the boards. “It was all about Drew Gooden. He was just outstanding. I guess they just underestimated this guy and, you know, he brought it. He’s a veteran. He’s a talented guy and you know, he knows how to put himself in the position to rebound the ball, and his timing today was very good.”
One of just three Wizards born before Washington last won a second-round playoff game in 1982, the 32-year-old Gooden became the first player in the shot clock era to have at least 12 points and 13 rebounds in just 18 minutes of action.
“That’s a wow to me,” Gooden said, “because I know it’s been a lot of better players, a lot of greats that had that opportunity but to throw Drew Gooden in that mix, I’m flattered.”
Gooden helped the Wizards outrebound the Pacers, 53-36. He also had seven offensive rebounds, one more than the entire Pacers team, and was constantly bouncing all over the floor in relentless pursuit of the ball. The Wizards had 14 more second-chance points than Indiana, which proved to be difference in a game in which both teams shot worse than 42 percent from the floor. Washington missed 49 shots.
“If you ever have that many chances at the basket, you’re probably going to shoot a low percentage, getting 17 offensive rebounds,” Gooden said. “But when you get two, three shots at the basket on one possession, eventually one of those shots is going in.”
After Indiana chopped a 16-point deficit to 85-78 with roughly seven minutes left, Gooden had three offensive rebounds and two tip-ins during a crushing 7-0 run.
“I believe when Nene was suspended [for Game 4 against Chicago], I played 26, 27 minutes and I had two points and two rebounds but I think I did the little things to help my team win. I even joked about it being my best two-point, two-rebound game I ever had,” Gooden said with a laugh. “Whatever I can do to help my team win. The ball was definitely on my side, getting offensive rebounds and keeping my energy at a high level.”
But joining the Wizards has also helped Gooden, a 12-year veteran on his 10th team, keep up his energy. After Monday’s win, Gooden acknowledged that practices in Washington have proven to be quite taxing for the big men.
“I practiced with a lot of teams and by far, this is the most physical team I’ve practice with, when it comes to big guys,” Gooden said. “You got Kevin Seraphin over there, that’s a big body and is not even playing. Booker, Gortat, Nene, myself included. It’s a rough practice and it’s good because it carries over to the game.”
Though he’s only been with the team for roughly three months, Gooden never went through the awkward transition period and blended as if he had been with the team since training camp. If no NBA team had picked him up, Gooden said he would’ve maintained the same workout routine. His 64-year-old father, Andrew Jr., still regularly plays pickup basketball and Gooden uses him as a “measuring stick” for his passion for the game.
“One thing about Drew, he’s a veteran player, so he understands the game very well. He loves basketball. He kept himself in shape when he wasn’t playing and that was big for him,” said Trevor Ariza, who scored 22 points in the win over Indiana. “He wasn’t out of touch at all. He fit right in to what we were doing here. Toward the end of the season and in the first round, he didn’t play that much, but he kept himself ready and he’s hungry. He wants to play.”
Gooden reached the Finals with Cleveland in 2007, when the Cavaliers swept the injury-riddled Wizards in the first-round. But he didn’t want to get ahead of himself after the Wizards’ front line got the best of Roy Hibbert, David West and Ian Mahinmi.
“You know what, it was our night, but we’ll see what happens in the second game,” Gooden said, adding that the rest that came as a result of a quick dismissal of Chicago paid dividends. “I reiterated that to the team, saying, ‘Hey, these guys just finished a seven-game series.’ We’ve been practicing for almost seven days. We should be the aggressor. We should have the legs and that definitely worked in our favor.”