ATLANTA — After any bad loss by the Wizards, there’s usually one or two people who are given all the blame. First rule of thumb is that the coach is always one of the two. The next is a player, and often it’s based on the boxscore -- his numbers vs. the numbers of the guy he's guarding.
For the 114-99 loss at the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday in the regular-season opener, that would be coach Scott Brooks and Marcin Gortat.
I hesitate to criticize a coach, especially one such as Brooks in his first game with his new team, without knowing the reasons behind his moves or non-moves. Do some players know the playbook better than others? Is anyone out of shape? Has anyone cut corners in practice or has to have a message sent so that player doesn’t play?
Not suggesting here that any of these things are the reason but only the coach knows those motivations. Everything else is pure guesswork and speculation from armchairs – or in my case, press row.
So let’s focus on what we do know about Gortat because, in Rasheed Wallace syntax, “video don’t lie.”
Gortat had just four points and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes. His counterpart with Atlanta, Dwight Howard, had 11 points and a game-high 19 rebounds in 30 minutes.
The Wizards were outrebounded 52-40 and were mauled in second-chance points 20-6. But if judging performance was as simple as reading stats, what's the need for film study?
The explanation from Gortat: “He maybe wasn’t a huge threat offensively but unfortunately on the glass he’s always going to be a threat. He just always stays around the rim. He’s so big, so athletic, physical that every time when I take my body off it’s tough for the other guys on the team. Everybody else is smaller. He gets pretty much every offensive rebound if I’m not there. It’s tough. They drive to the paint, you got to help, somebody’s got to help and leave him open. It’s a pick-and-choose situation.”
Fact or fiction?
I'll stick to the first half because that's when Howard made his greatest impact. He only had two points and four rebounds in the second half.
- The first basket for the Hawks comes on a dunk from Howard, who collected a miss from Kent Bazemore's miss for a putback. That avenue was created because Gortat had to help thwart Bazemore's path to the rim. If he doesn't step over to contest, Bazemore has a bucket. But who helps Gortat? Markieff Morris, originally guarding Paul Millsap, passed him off to Gortat. He couldn't stop Bazemore and Howard simultaneously. (10:55)
- Millsap goes at Morris and Gortat sticks with Howard and forces him out of bounds so that when the ball goes up and off the rim, Morris has a clean get. Gortat doesn't grab the rebound but clears the space for his team to get it. That's every bit as good as the rebound itself. (9:23)
- Dennis Schroder manuevered around John Wall to get into the lane and Gortat stepped up. Gortat didn't contest what ended up being a miss and Howard's momentum just cleared him out for the offensive board. Bazemore misses but Gortat was too flat-footed here. Just got outworked for the ball. The anticipation wasn't there. (8:55)
- Schroder gets past Wall, who appears to be gambling for the block from behind, and into the lane. Gortat has to help and contest but Howard -- again -- slips inside to grab the offensive board. Gortat does a better job contesting here and forces the miss. (8:06)
- Schroder blows by Morris but this time Gortat stays with Howard rather than helping with Howard off to such a fast start. Schroder short-arms a chip shot at the rim but 9.9 out of 10 that's layup. (6:00)
- Gortat stays connected on the pick-and-roll between Schroder and Howard and anticipates a lob over the top. The swatted pass sends Bradley Beal in transition for a bucket to tie the score at 14. (5:16)
- In a 2-vs.-2 situation, Gortat disconnected from Howard to put a body on Mike Muscala, who is 6-11. Howard grabs a missed jumper from Tim Hardaway on the other side for the rim for an easy putback and his fourth offensive rebound.(4:30)
- Gortat battles Howard on a three-point shot that's errant from Muscala. Gortat bodies him under the rim, which operates as shield, so Howard can't get to the rebound. (4:04)
- Howard is out of the game, but as Hardaway tries to run baseline to the opposite corner Gortat chips him with a shoulder to disrupt the action. (1:50)
- Gortat gets an isolation on the undersized Muscala for a quick mid-post/jump hook. (1:32)
Gortat played the entire 12 mintues of the first quarter and returned with 7:11 remaining before halftime:
- Schroder misses a long jumper and Gortat seals Howard from the rebound and taps the ball to Wall to send the Wizards into transition. (6:32)
- Humphries misses and Morris gets the rebound. Even though Gortat didn't get it, he kept Howard off the glass which is another example of how helping your teammate get the rebound is just as valuable as getting the rebound yourself. (5:31)
- Gortat gets left in one heck of a predicament. Humphries peels off screen on Porter who doesn't follow him into the paint, dives to the rim and Gortat, already on Howard, has to defend two Hawks at once point-blank range. He does the right thing and forces Humphries to make the pass (not his strength) and Beal recovers to foul a bad foul shooter in Howard to force him to earn the points. (4:37)
- After a timeout, Thabo Sefolosha runs screen-roll with Howard, gets past Porter and Wall reaches in from the nail. Gortat has to step up to seal the penetration with Howard diving to the rim behind him. This creates a Howard vs. Porter mismatch at the rim and as Hardaway misses long, Howard misses the putback, gets his own rebound and Gortat comes back over to help prevent an easy bucket. Porter charged with a foul for grabbing Howard's arm. (2:48)
- Gortat fights hard to front Howard after he stepped out again to assist Thornton on a pick-and-roll with Hardaway. He contains the ball and Gortat managed to get over the top of Howard to seal off Bazemore's drive by Wall but that put him out of position. Howard scooped up the loose ball but missed his shot. Hawks did score though. (1:15)
- Gortat defends pick-and-roll with Bazemore and Howard and gauges it perfectly with Wall. Bazemore, however, makes the right read and locates Millsap sinking in the deep corner for the three. Andrew Nicholson left him to support Gortat to prevent a lob to Howard. (20.8)
There were a lot of defensive breakdowns around the ball, before it got to the rim or inside to Howard, that go far beyond Gortat who did a decent job. Having Ian Mahinmi (knee surgery) would help the Wizards immensely here so they can keep a fresh, big body on Howard at all times but the perimeter defense can't roll out the red carpet and allow free paths to the basket.
When these teams rematch Nov. 4 at Verizon Center, let's see what adjustments are made by Brooks.
To answer the question in the headline, fact or fiction that Gortat was primarily responsible for Howard's big night? Fiction. And in his quote, he told the truth. Howard flourished when Gortat was put in help situations and he didn't get the same help in return, a principle of team defense.
UPDATE: Brooks after practice Saturday afternoon in Memphis on this issue: "When you go back and look at the film and you say, 'This guy had seven or eight offensive rebounds,' the natural thing is to think Marcin or the big guys didn't block out. The bottom line is we got beat off the dribble. When you get beat off the dribble so easily you have to have a big helping. But the big has to have trust that he's going to have help when he helps his teammate."