As the NBA rebrands its big men as unicorns, the Wizards steadfastly play a center who has no desire to spread the floor or launch threes. Instead, Gortat sets screens, rolls when he can and hopes the four skilled players around him will swing the ball his way every once in a while. That kind of game may appear old school, but on Wednesday night, the Wizards blasted the New York Knicks, 121-103, with flashback fundamentals inside Capital One Arena.
While Bradley Beal celebrated his Eastern Conference player of the week honor with another stellar game (27 points on 11-for-14 shooting) and John Wall won every race to the rim (25 points and nine assists), Gortat reveled in his role, producing a season-best 21 points on 9-for-10 shooting from the field.
"I'm happy we won the game. That's the most important thing," Gortat said. "It's just one game in the season, I guess, when I score like that. Let's talk after 10, 20 more games, and we'll see what's going to happen."
The Wizards (22-16), winners of their past three games, scored 58 points in the paint and limited the impact of the Knicks' front line.
New York starts a traditional center in Enes Kanter but also features the 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, who can score near the rim but also averages nearly five three-point attempts per game. For his uniqueness, Porzingis, a prototype of the modern-day big man, was bestowed the nickname "The Unicorn."
The Wizards countered with their dinosaurs.
"Gortat was having a big game," forward Markieff Morris said. "They weren't really small. They're a big . . . team. So we really couldn't play small ball."
On Wednesday, Washington shelved its small-ball lineups, keeping either Gortat or backup center Ian Mahinmi on the floor. Even while remaining traditional, the Wizards found versatility.
The starters shot 73 percent from the field in the first quarter, and after allowing 63 points in the first half, the team buckled in defensively. Washington dispatched larger bodies to Porzingis, limiting him to 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting for the game, and restricted the Knicks to just 37.2 percent shooting after halftime (16 for 43).
In the fourth quarter, the starters remained intact and protected a double-figure lead — with Morris making three assisted shots in the final 6:12 and Wall sending a lob pass to Beal that extended the score to 118-103 before the starters began their walks to the bench.
One game after pulling down a season-high 11 rebounds, Morris matched that total and produced his first double-double of the year with 11 points. Gortat grabbed eight, and the frontcourt led the effort in Washington outrebounding New York 42-36.
"I think we just came out more focused," Gortat said of the Wizards' second-half play. "Determination was at a higher level, and everybody contribute. Everybody was playing good defense, and we executed offensively, too."
Gortat might have been waiting for this matchup since October. In two preseason games, Kanter made 12 of 19 shots while matched up against Gortat. Months later, Gortat hasn't gotten over the humiliation.
"Basically I just decide I want to go at him," Gortat said. "He was going at me in the preseason. I didn't like that. I felt like I was disrespected, and that's it."
In the opening quarter, Gortat hit all four of his shots, never veering beyond 14 feet from the rim. Despite his occasional foul trouble, Gortat capitalized on his time on the floor and matched his previous season high (18 points) in less than 17 minutes of action.
Gortat "did a good job tonight rolling," Coach Scott Brooks said. "When he rolls, he has layups, and John was able to find him for easy buckets. You are not going to miss a lot of shots right around the key, but then he made a couple of jump shots, too. It was a good game. We needed all of his points. We needed his defense. He had a tough matchup with Kanter, who is playing well, and I thought he did a good job, especially in that second half."
Both teams shot 25 for 43 (58.1 percent) in the first half, but as the Wizards pulled away from New York, Gortat anchored the offense in the third quarter. He scored the first bucket diving to the basket, then posted up Porzingis and finished with a scoop layup from the right block. On the next play, Gortat shielded Beal's defender and allowed his teammate to get the basket.
Then Gortat got the ultimate revenge. With 6:32 remaining in the third quarter, Gortat baited his rival into an offensive foul, plunging hard to the court when Kanter lowered his shoulder. After the whistle, Gortat popped up to his feet as Kanter, tagged with his fourth foul, headed to the Knicks' bench. Kanter sat for the remainder of the game and finished with 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting and just four rebounds.
On a night when three starters compiled their best plus-minus ratings of the season, the Wizards proved their retro lineup still can be fashionable.
"We have a full, complete starting lineup," Gortat said. "The starters can literally do everything — besides me shooting threes.
"Every night is going to be John and Brad scoring, but on top of that, you never know who's going to be the third person," Gortat continued. "It might be me, might be Keef or" Otto Porter Jr.