The defense of Marcin Gortat has been a bright spot in the last three games even though the Wizards are 1-2. Forget that he had a season-best 21 points and18 rebounds in a loss to San Antonio. It's Gortat's position defense one-on-one that has stood out along with his help rotations.
"The last three games," said Wizards coach Scott Brooks, alluding to vs. the Sacramento Kings, Oklahoma City Thunder and Spurs, "that's the best I've seen him."
It's not about how much the person Gortat guarding scores, or any player for that matter. It's about how difficult he makes it and doubling his efforts to protect the rim. That doesn't mean shot blocks. It means making the opponent finish over his size (6-11) and fighting them for position on the low block to prevent clean looks.
How has Brooks gotten through in ways that others haven't with the Polish center? DeMarcus Cousins had 36 points for the Kings, but it took 34 shots in that victory for Washington. Steven Adams of the Thunder was neutralized. He even stepped away from the rim to match up with LaMarcus Aldridge, a forward who is too big for Markieff Morris, in Friday's loss in San Antonio.
"I keep talking about it. That's important. It's simple," Brooks said of Gortat's play on defense. "He's helped us put us in position to win. He did a great job on Cousins. On the road against two very good teams in tough buildings, he gave us a chance to win both of those games with the way he was defending. Even against LaMarcus, he did a great job guarding him. (Pau) Gasol hit those two threes but those weren't his fault."
Gortat, who has come under fire for several years for his role in the defensive breakdowns in the interior, explained his improvement.
"It's not like we're playing suddenly a different defense than any other team in the NBA. We are playing the same defense. It's about committment, it's about basketball knowledge and basketball IQ. Stay solid. Don't foul. Put a guy in a stuation when he's going ot shoot a difficult shot or I'm in a situation where I have to hit him hard," Gortat said after Sunday's practice. "Make sure next time he's not going to come into the paint. He's not going to do certain moves against me. I'm not doing anything specific. I think we're all playing hard. It's about being dedicated and have the passion to play defense. It's a commitment. It's a hard-ass thing to do. It's easy to go on the other side, set a screen and shoot the ball. It's easy to play offense. Playing defense is the hard part."
Showing that he can actually defend away from the basket without help at times, Gortat gives the Wizards options with his 11.8 points on 58.1% shooting and 12.1 rebounds. The "without help" part is significant because it allows teammates to focus on defending their man without having to pull double duty as often. It can make the Wizards a better team though the results so far have produced a 6-12 record.
"I'm not really surprised," Gortat said when asked about how he has played on defense recently. "Looking at the game against Sacramento, Cousins was going out to destroy me. He made so many shots, so many drives and I missed so many easy blocks on him. It's not like he beat me, I lay down on the court and I was just crying and he was laying it in going to the basket. I was right there missing the block. I would say it's just commitment. Staying in the right place. Knowing tendencies of the guy you're guarding. I dont think I'm great. I dont think I'm terrible. I'll say I'm definitely above average. I take a lot of pride in what I do and I'll try to do better."
A quick look at Gortat's work in the the last three games:
Brooks surprisingly left Gortat on Cousins, opting to go with his size and strength over Morris who was too small to defend him. Cousins made shots like this over Gortat, but what's important is he had to work for most of them and he danced with the ball so frequently for long periods of the shot clock it took away shot opportunities for others. Despite the make, Gortat defended well in space without help most of the night and kept his man in front of him. He played more as a stretch forward than a center which was totally out of his comfort zone.
Note how he battles the Thunder's big man pre-catch. Where Adams wants the ball to post up is a much different spot than where he actually catches it. Gortat harrasses Adams every step of the way and holds his ground without reaching for a cheap foul.
Andre Roberson empties the space on the strongside so Adams can have room to go one-on-one. Adams, however, can't get to his spot because he meets too much resistance from Gortat and leaves it short.
The position defense by Gortat here, coupled with his physical strength and not biting his fakes, forces Adams into a traveling call. This basket is negated.
Aldridge feasts on teams with this post-up, fadeaway. Gortat defends it better than Markieff Morris, who had trouble with his size and allowed some easy duck-ins to the basket, and was able to contest the lower-percentage shot that misses against the Spurs.
Brooks took a risk by leaving Gortat exposed on Cousins, but that experience appears to have given both confidence. The assignments won't get much tougher than that on the perimeter.