- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2017

Once the Wizards learned the Atlanta Hawks would be their first-round playoff opponent, Marcin Gortat knew he was in for another jaw-rattling tussle with Dwight Howard.

The two began their thumping dance in 2008, when Gortat was an Orlando Magic rookie, practicing daily alongside then-teammate Howard. At the time, Howard was a 22-year-old freak in his fourth season who used massive shoulders to lead the league in rebounding. Gortat was a 23-year-old Polish import about to learn hard lessons in the NBA.

“One thing I really love about Dwight, is after the game he doesn’t take anything personally,” Gortat said. “And, I’m not going to take anything personally even though he made me bleed every day for the first four years in the NBA. I bleed every day in the practice and I learned to play tough basketball and he made me who I am today.

“I was going against an animal in the practice. Imagine the stuff that is going on here in a game, imagine the same stuff going on three times harder in a practice where you don’t have whistles, fouls, stuff like that. For me, it was pretty much about surviving a practice and going to the weight room every day, lift hard, because otherwise, I’m going to end up in the hospital or a wheelchair. I knew exactly what it is defending Dwight from the first four years. You better not lose your focus or he’s going to punish you.”

Throughout Washington’s Game 1 win Sunday, Gortat set his frame and braced for Howard to ram him. Most 6-foot-10, 240-pound men don’t encounter someone else who is able to bang them around. But, that’s the case when Gortat faces Howard, who remains a hefty, if at time uninspired, 265-pound barge.

Their statistical results were about even in the opener, which means Gortat came out on top. For the Wizards to win, Gortat has to be solid. For Atlanta to upset Washington, Howard has to be extremely effective in a league that has gone away from the in-the-paint albatross and more to the shooting big man.

In addition to the statistical rub — Gortat finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds, Howard seven points and 14 rebounds — Gortat appeared superior to those watching. He has long been regarded as one of the league’s best rim-running big men. Gortat honed the trait next to Steve Nash in Phoenix and now exploits it with John Wall. Against Howard in Game 1, Gortat was able to box out, see others rebound, then run to the other end for layups or dunks. Quickly, he would run straight back to meet Howard in the paint after the Hawks’ big man chose to stay on the offensive end instead of sprinting back.

Wizards backup center Ian Mahinmi stood watching from the bench. His strained left calf has forced him out of at least the first two games of the series against Atlanta. Monday, Mahinmi worked on his shooting form with stationary drills after practice ended. He, like Kelly Oubre (knee) and Jason Smith (knee) did not practice. But, Mahinmi put in his work without a walking boot on or exercise sleeve over his calf. That’s a change from prior days.

When Mahinmi watched Game 1, he thought about the “physicality” other big men have to deliver when dealing with Howard, still massive and stunningly fit for 31 years old.

“[Howard‘s] going to have days where stuff goes well for him and he’s going to have nights like [Game 1] where Marc did a good job,” Mahinmi said. “It’s never really a one-on-one type of things. Sometimes, you’re going to have to help and you’re going to have to rely on your guards to help you.”

Late in the second quarter Sunday, Gortat turned to slam into Howard. It was more of making sure he delivered the initial shot as opposed to preparing to corral the ball. Gortat’s opening blow stunned Howard enough that Otto Porter came from the weakside to reach out and pull in the rebound. Porter gave an outlet pass to Wall, Gortat began to sprint and four seconds later Gortat had a layup. Howard never made it below the three-point line. After scoring, Gortat sprinted back to meet Howard in the paint.

“That’s a key,” Gortat said. “Keep him off his sweet spots. He still caught the ball a few times inside the paint. At that point, you’ve got to do your best. Try to contest the shot. I guess, that’s my strength. Running the court. I got to do that every day. I don’t weigh 280 pounds with two percent body fat. I got four and I got to run as much as possible.”

Despite the modern clashes and bludgeoning of yesteryear, there’s no ill will between Gortat and Howard.

“I truly respect the guy,” Gortat said. “We’re going to have our little shoving matches and pushes and garbage talking. But, at the end of the day, he’s my vet. He took care of me back in Orlando. I’ll never forget what he did for me and he made me a better player.”

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