Although the Suns cut the score to 49-40 on a runner by Nash with 2:53 left before halftime, Howard responded on Orlando’s ensuing possession. Howard sped past Gortat, cut across the lane and went up for a dunk.
The Magic led by double digits from that point on.
Gortat has been a big reason for Phoenix’s recent success.
Benefitting from his partnership with Nash and increased playing time, Gortat began Wednesday with Howard and Andrew Bynum as the NBA’s only players who are averaging 15.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.
Gortat felt excited before Wednesday’s tipoff. In fact, he felt so amped up that he worried that his excess energy would spur him into silly personal fouls early on.
Nicknamed the “Polish Hammer,” Gortat was a fan favorite in Orlando for his hustle, his awkward style and because he was a good backup to Howard. Gortat often wanted more playing time, but Van Gundy found it difficult because Gortat was playing behind Howard, a perennial All-Star.
Gortat had looked forward to this matchup ever since Dec. 18, 2010, the day of the blockbuster trade that sent him, Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, a first-round pick and cash to the Suns for Earl Clark, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu.
The Suns had not played the Magic in Orlando since then.
Before tipoff, Gortat credited Van Gundy and assistant coach Brendan Malone for helping him become a better pro.
He also is friendly with Howard. The two spent some time together during the offseason, talking once face-to-face for 90 minutes.
“After Coach Malone, after Stan, Dwight is probably the third person who really improved my game, who made me a tougher guy,” Gortat said. “Now I know how it is to go against the best guys in the league. Many times, there’s nothing worse than Dwight. If you can survive Dwight, then there’s nothing worse than Dwight.”
Perhaps Gortat’s adrenaline messed with his shooting on Wednesday. He didn’t score until he was fouled by Jameer Nelson and hit a pair of free throws with 8 minutes, 49 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Gortat missed his first six shot attempts from the field, but he collected an offensive rebound off a missed 3 by teammate Markieff Morris and scored on a layup with 4:14 left in the third. His bucket cut Orlando’s lead to 71-58.
Gortat and Nash watched the fourth quarter from the Phoenix bench.
By that point, there was no need for them to go back into the game.
The nightmare was about to run its course with or without firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/magicblog. Subscribe to our Orlando Magic newsletter at OrlandoSentinel.com/joinus.