Marcin Gortat has been the Suns' workhorse this season. He's started all 47 games, leading the team in scoring, rebounding, free throws attempted and minutes per game. So solid has Gortat been in producing 25 double-doubles thus far that it was taken for granted that he'd put up close to his 15.7 points and 10.0 rebounds season averages nearly every game.
This is what makes it alarming that he appears to have hit something of a wall in the last couple of weeks. Gortat has but one double-double in his last eight games, and the drop in his rebounding is what's most remarkable as he's had a game with only 6 rebounds, another two with 5 and another in which he gathered only 4.
Fortunately, the Suns have played well during this stretch anyway, winning 5 of 8, but for that success to be sustainable, the backbone of the team will have to produce more than he has recently. Leading into this stretch of rough games for Gortat, he was playing outstanding basketball, and even with it he's been one of the team's top few players by any measure.
What's causing Gortat's struggles? And what will it take for him to get his juice back for the stretch?
Let's look back to when Gortat joined the Suns in late 2010. Thanks to our contributor Piotr Szczesniak, we learned that Gortat told a Polish newspaper that he saw it as:
"...what kind of cage I was kept in Orlando. Now I'm in Phoenix, I'm 26 and in my prime, maybe it was meant to be - be the sub for the best center in the league for 3 years, get clobbered every day by the toughest guy on earth, and then when I still feel great physically be able to show my game."
He craved the opportunity after feeling that he was "kept in a cage", and now has the opportunity. But it also includes his team depending upon him to be their primary rebounder, leading scorer and leader in minutes played in a sprint of a season that provides few breathers.
There is an analogy of a person who is thirsty and then finds water, only that the water comes out of a firehose. It applies here. Gortat wanted exactly this, but it's a lot to ask of any player, let alone one who had started only 5 games before joining the Suns. Gortat is in his fifth NBA season, and his 3180 minutes played in 102 games as a Sun is over half of his career total of 5499 minutes.
And these are not easy minutes he's playing. I've been a major Gortat supporter since his arrival and love watching him play. He's disciplined in a way that is almost military-style. Defensively, he's fundamentally sound and dependably pulls down rebounds. Offensively, he sets pick after pick, and then dives to the basket or takes mid-range jumpers off the pass. He runs the floor consistently well.
All of these tasks require a high degree of energy, and until recently Gortat showed that he is quite adept at what he calls "donkey work."
"My coach in Cologne (Germany) taught me that. He always told me that hard work got him where he's at. It's important that I started playing basketball very late and I had this hunger all the time. Other players at 18 were already tired and bored, because it was their 5-6 year of training and I couldn't wait to practice, I often came to the facility 1.5 hours before the actual training. In Germany I was also given a whole lot of theoretical knowledge and I wanted to know more and more. After all these years donkey work is just a habit..."
So, what of these last eight games? Gortat had his first true clunker of a game this season with 8 points, 4 rebounds and 4 fouls in allowing Nikola Pekovic to beat him up in a loss to the T-Wolves. We could call that just a bad night.
Against the Clippers, he went for only 8 and 6 on 3-10 shooting without Nash feeding him. In his sixth game in eight nights last night, he faced the league's premier center and dominant defensive player in Dwight Howard and was destroyed by the 3-time Defensive Player of the Year.
This isn't to excuse Gortat's poor performances, but more to explain them. If we look at any player in the league this season, they have nights when they simply didn't or couldn't bring it. Gortat has been remarkably consistent. At some point, he just won't have it in him, and this brutal stretch of schedule has been that for him.
Still, I'm confident we'll soon see the same double-double producing machine. As he said:
"Bad games will come because it's part of the job, but the key is how you react to it, dig yourself out of the hole. The journalists will surely write that the truth about Gortat came out, that all in all he is mediocre at best, that he had a lucky streak. But it's like driving the car really. The fact that you had a collision doesn't mean you forgot how to drive."
Is Gortat physically tired? Mentally tired? Probably some of each. He had a little fender bender in the last couple of weeks, but still knows how to drive. He'll be a major factor in these final 19 games for the Suns, and he'll work his ass off to get the job done.
Special Thanks to Piotr, who translated this interview in February, 2011 and contributes here consistently well.