By Dan Savage
March 12, 2009
ORLANDO -- In life your level of success is usually determined by your ability to bounce back.
When presented with a challenge do you crumble under the pressure?
Or do you rise to the occasion and rebound from a previous defeat?
In regards to Magic backup big man Marcin Gortat, the jury was still out yesterday, at least among the NBA community.
Stuck behind Dwight Howard, the second-year forward/center had rarely faced any adversity and usually only entered the game for brief stretches to give the Magic’s Superman a breather.
But Magic Head Coach Stan Van Gundy recently decided to give Gortat a different role. As he preps for the playoffs, he wanted to see how Gortat would perform paired next to Howard.
Although Orlando usually decides to feature a smaller lineup with Rashard Lewis (a more natural three) at the four spot in order to space the floor with shooters for Howard, Van Gundy was interested to see if a twin towers set could provide the solution for the Magic’s struggles against more physical squads.
After Gortat – also known as the Polish Hammer for his thunderous dunks – provided a spark in the Celtics contest when Hedo Turkoglu went down with a foot injury, he struggled in the Magic’s next matchup against the Pistons.
Veteran forward Antonio McDyess took the youngster to school in the final minutes of the matchup, grabbing four offensive rebounds in a one-minute span over Gortat to finish with 13 points and 18 boards in a close 98-94 home triumph for Detroit.
It was a demoralizing defeat for Gortat, who took the loss personally.
In his pregame address with the media on Wednesday, the Polish big man took full blame for the defeat.
As Gortat – normally one of the most cheerful members of the Magic – rehashed the details of the final moments of the Pistons game, his personal anguish with his performance was stained across his face.
That was until he made two vows:
The first being that “my team won’t lose because of me again, ever.”
And the second that “tonight if I get the chance to play, I’m not thinking about anything but grabbing 20 rebounds. That’s what I am supposed to grab tonight.”
The reaction across the media’s faces for Gortat’s first statement was one of admiration for his dedication to improvement.
However, when he proclaimed he would get 20 rebounds, there were a few snickers among the observers.
Who would think that Gortat would have anything close to a 20-rebound night against the Bulls?
Apparently, he truly did.
Motivated by words of encouragement from Van Gundy prior to the contest, Gortat stormed the court against the Bulls and took out his frustrations with a vengeance.
In just over 23 minutes of action, the Polish Hammer smashed Chicago with 13 points and 15 rebounds to help Orlando clinch a playoff berth with a 107-79 home victory.
“I think I was more focused, and I was trying to go harder at the ball,” he said in the locker room following the game. “Even if the ball was bouncing on the floor, I was going to try and go get it. I think on defense, I was reading the shot and following the track of the ball better. I think I just came into the game better. The guys hit me pretty well. After you hit the first score, later everything is real easy.”
While the media clearly underestimated his ability, it was obvious the Bulls did too. And if it’s up to Gortat, he’s more than fine with keeping it that way.
“I really don’t care if they respect me or not,” he said with a laugh. “I am just going to try and punish them and do my job. If they disrespected me today, that was one of the reasons why they lost. Obviously I had 15 rebounds so I played my game. They can disrespect me every game. I don’t have a problem with that.”
For Gortat his redemption performance could not have come at a better time. Along with wanting to get the taste of the Pistons matchup out of his mouth, Wednesday’s game against the Bulls was broadcasted to over 40 million people in his native land of Poland.
“I think it’s pretty cool because my mom was watching me so, nothing special but I’m happy for my people and my country because they were watching me,” the big man reflected in the locker room. “Hopefully it will help basketball there.”
Gortat wasn’t the only bench member to fill up the stat sheet. On a night where All-Star forward Rashard Lewis could not make a shot, All-Star center Dwight Howard struggled with foul trouble and Turkoglu sat with tendonitis in his left foot, Tony Battie, J.J. Redick and Gortat combined for 44 points off the pine.
For once the role players clearly outshined the stars.
“They had to play a lot of minutes consecutively there at the end and I thought we may have to get the paddles out, but those guys played really well,” Van Gundy joked in his postgame press conference. “Our bench was really the key to getting us that lead.”
While Gortat may have drawn smirks for his pregame proclamation prior to the Bulls, one thing is visibly clear now; no one will be laughing the next time he makes a guarantee.