INDIANAPOLIS – At the conclusion of the Wizards’ morning shootaround, Coach Randy Wittman walked directly over to a seated Marcin Gortat. Wittman carried the conversation and the gist of his message was that the Wizards are at their best when Gortat gives his best effort. Gortat nodded throughout.
On the brink of elimination, the Wizards need more from Gortat if they want to extend this series or perhaps complete an improbable comeback. In the past two games, Gortat has been invisible. His inability to slow down Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert has made him a liability. Wittman has relied more on Drew Gooden and benched Gortat for the entire fourth quarter in Game 4 on Sunday, when Gortat had just two points and three rebounds in the Wizards’ 95-92 loss.
Gortat averaged a double-double in the first two games (16.5 points, 13 rebounds) and even earned his first postseason podium interview after the loss in Game 2, when he provided his personal highlight of the playoffs with an emphatic dunk over Ian Mahinmi. But with the Wizards inexplicably losing both games at home and now trailing, 3-1, Gortat said the time has come for the players to let it all hang out.
“You have to be able to play your best basketball, or it’s win or go home. That’s it,” Gortat said. “It comes down to what you’re made of and if you have the heart to fight all the way to the end and at the end, at least say, they were the better team and won or let down and get punched in the mouth and cry.”
Hibbert’s awakening from a months-long funk has been the difference in this series. After scoring zero points and grabbing zero rebounds in the Game 1 loss, Hibbert has averaged 19.7 points on 65 percent shooting, with 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks to lead the Pacers to three consecutive wins.
“He been getting good looks. He’s been making shots, some tough shots. We’re not able to stop him,” Gortat said. “Of course, every day I take personally matchup against him and unfortunately, it is what it is.”
The Wizards’ more traditional front line has provided Hibbert with the comfort to camp out down low to impede John Wall’s drives to the basket and establish solid position offensively for scoring opportunities inside. The Pacers reached out to Hibbert in advance of Game 2, encouraging him to get back in the fight and taking him on a fishing trip to ease his mind. Georgetown Coach John Thompson III also paid him a visit.
“His whole demeanor just changed. He started to demand the ball, like he’s been doing to start this year off. And everything he’s been doing since the start of the year is starting to come back around,” Pacers all-star forward Paul George said. “I wasn’t worried. I knew Roy was going to come around. It was taking longer than we all would’ve hoped but I knew he was coming back around for us. He’s a professional. There’s a reason that he has been an all-star, he can play at a high level. He just had to find himself.”
The Wizards are now hoping that Gortat can regain his form to keep the season alive.
“At this point, none of us can be a hero. We got to things coach tells us to do and we have to perform,” Gortat said. “Each one of us got to be responsible for our own matchup and each one of us got to be assignment that we have. Obviously, if we continue to do our assignment and we continue to do what coach asks us to do, we can’t try to do extra stuff.”
When asked what the past 48 hours have been like, Gortat said, “A little hell. Just a little hell. Big disappointment. Obviously, nobody expected to be in this situation that we are right now. Again, it is what it is.”
Gortat joined the team five days before the season opener and helped it reach Ted Leonsis’s demands of reaching the postseason with his interior presence. He said the Wizards have already proven that they can handle to pressure situations based on how they responded this season. This playoff run has given him a greater sense of what his teammates are about. He admits that he continues to adjust.
“It’s impossible for me to come in the first week and tell everybody what to do and how they can play. I was new in this environment,” Gortat said. “Next year, I’m going to be more vocal than I am right now. But the first days, you come in here like you’re a rookie. You’re quiet and you do your job. Our relationship is better now, but at the end of the day, we have to have that chemistry and you build chemistry, sometimes for years.”
Gortat will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. When asked what he meant when he said he would be more vocal with the team, “next year,” Gortat smiled and said, “Might be back next year.”
Then, as he walked away, Gortat said, “Or I might not.”