Familiar foes Marcin Gortat and Dwight Howard battled down low in a physical Game 1 of Wizards-Hawks, but it certainly wasn't the first time either played in a physical game against one another.
Gortat and Howard were teammates in Orlando for four seasons with the Magic, going head-to-head every day in practice. On Monday, Gortat explained that their battles in practice were "three times as physical" as Game 1, which motivated Gortat to get in the weight room early on in his career. Years later, they're facing off in the playoffs in one of the most crucial matchups of the series.
“I learned to play tough basketball," Gortat said of his time battling Howard with the Magic. "He made me who I am today. I was going against an animal in practice.”
In Game 1, Gortat secured a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds to go along with two blocks on 7/11 shooting. He had a Net Rating of 30.1 in his 31 minutes, with the Wizards scoring 125.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. On the other hand, when Howard was in the game, the Hawks only scored 83.6 points per 100 possessions. Through those advanced metrics, it would be hard to deny that Gortat won the battle in Game 1. Gortat also grabbed six offensive rebounds, though Howard out-rebounded him overall with 14.
Gortat's teammates recognized how well he played in Game 1, especially the guards he sets his league-leading 6.2 screen assists per game for. John Wall and Bradley Beal are usually the benefactors of his solid screens, which Gortat learned from watching players like Kendrick Perkins and Dennis Rodman. Beal, who said he told Gortat before Game 1 that they were really counting on him, praised him after Sunday's win.
"He did a great job of keeping Dwight (Howard) out of the paint, keeping him from getting some easy buckets, and from getting a lot of offensive rebounds too," Beal said. "He knows his role. Without him, man, we wouldn’t get half the shots, half of the possessions we get, we credit him."
The Wizards will need Gortat to perform like he did in Game 1 the rest of the series. With Ian Mahinmi not available for the beginning of the playoffs, Gortat knows he can't get into foul trouble. Few have learned Howard's game better than Gortat, who understands the need to deny Howard's sweet spots and the extent of physicality that goes into playing against him. And no matter how physical the games continue to be, Gortat knows he and Howard will always have a great relationship.
“One thing I really love about Dwight is that after the game he doesn’t take anything personally," Gortat explained. "And I’m not going to take anything personally even that he made me bleed every day for the first four years in the NBA.”
“At the end of the day, he’s my vet," Gortat concluded about Howard. "He took care of me back in Orlando. I’ll never forget what he did for me, and he made me a better player.”