With Howard out, Gortat materializes for Magic in Game 6

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Magic coach Stan Van Gundy disagrees with Sixers coach Tony Dileo's claims that Dwight Howard violated the 3-second rule.

No, Gortat is not the name of a character played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

But Marcin Gortat, the 6-11 Polish anonymity who filled in last night against the 76ers for the Orlando Magic's suspended superstar center, Dwight Howard, proved he was hardly the inept Eastern European visitor to these shores who Cohen portrayed in the 2006 film, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."

It wasn't Gortat - or shooting guard J.J. Redick, the one-trick pony who filled in for the injured Courtney Lee - who primarily did in the Sixers in a season-ending, 114-89 loss to the Magic in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference first-round series at the Wachovia Center. The big guns for Orlando were forward Rashard Lewis, who went off for a game-high 29 points, and point guard Rafer Alston, who added 21 points and 10 assists. And, lest we forget, Alston was a midseason acquisition to replace injured All-Star Jameer Nelson, the former Saint Joseph's standout.

But for the 16,691 spectators who filled the arena in the hope that the absence of Howard and Lee would open a window of opportunity for the Sixers to force a climactic Game 7 tomorrow in Orlando, Gortat and Redick more than held up their end of the deal. Gortat played Sixers center Samuel Dalembert to a statistical standstill, scoring 11 points and grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds to Dalembert's eight points, 13 boards and one blocked shot.

Redick, the former Duke All-America whose singular positive as an NBA player is his ability to shoot spot-up three-pointers, dropped in five of seven treys en route to 15 points.

Makes you wonder how much worse it might have been had Howard not sat out the game for throwing an above-the-shoulder elbow at Dalembert in Game 5, or Lee hadn't had sinus surgery after being smacked in the face by an inadvertent elbow from Howard a bit later in the same contest.

The hold-the-fort work done by Gortat and Redick validated the pregame opinion of Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy that his bench guys were more than capable of rising to the occasion.

But it was Gortat of whom Van Gundy seemingly was most proud. A dead ringer for middleweight boxing champion Kelly Pavlik, Gortat came to America to stay as one of those projects who might develop into something of value, or might not.

"Marcin really improved his body," Van Gundy said before the game. "He worked hard from the time he came over here. Joe Rogowski, our strength-and-conditioning coach, has done a great job with him. He's gotten much, much stronger.

"He has always been pretty athletic. And [assistant coach] Brendan Malone has done a tremendous job, day in and day out for 2 years, to improve his offensive skills. He's always been a very intelligent guy, picks up things quickly. He's a very good competitor. There's no fear in him whatsoever. You're not going to see a guy out there rattled and nervous because he's getting his first playoff start."

That much was evident in the first quarter, during which Gortat grabbed five rebounds. That was one more than the Sixers.

"I told J.J. that I couldn't believe we were playing together for a summer-league team a few years ago, and tonight we were starting in a playoff game," said Gortat, who will become a free agent this summer.

"People said, 'Howard is out, Philly is going to win.' But if they want to keep underestimating me like that, I'm good with it. I had 15 rebounds. I'll take that any day."

Sixers coach Tony DiLeo knew more about Gortat than most. Gortat played in Cologne, Germany, for Stefan Beck, who in turn had played for DiLeo when he was coaching in that country. Beck - who once tried out for the Sixers, when Jim Lynam was the head coach - had recommended Gortat to DiLeo, who was interested in drafting him in 2005, the year that the Sixers took Georgia high school guard Lou Williams with their top pick in the second round. Gortat was selected by the Phoenix Suns, who promptly traded him to Orlando for cash considerations.

Gortat is in his second season with the Magic. He averaged 3.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in 63 games in the regular season.

"He's been effective," DiLeo said of Gortat before the game. "Per minute, he's one of the best rebounders in the league. He really hustles, he does a lot of the dirty work. He'll be setting screens all over the court for Alston, Lewis and [Hedo] Turkoglu. He knows his role and plays his role."

What DiLeo had anticipated was that his big men - Dalembert, Theo Ratliff and maybe even rookie Marreese Speights, who had played sparingly in the series - would find more room on the inside to take enough advantage of Howard's suspension that the perimeter shooting of the Magic's three-point marksmen would at least be negated.

What happened instead was that the Magic outscored the Sixers in the paint, 46-28; beat them in second-chance points, 17-12; and, oh, yeah, dropped in 12 of 26 three-pointers. By the middle of the fourth quarter, Sixers partisans were heading to the parking lot in droves.

Maybe Gortat isn't Howard, but on this night at least, he lived up to his nickname, "The Polish Machine," which is emblazoned on a plastic band he wears on his wrist. And if the moniker sounds like a kitchen utensil for making kielbasa, so what? Last night, the guy hardly anyone outside of Warsaw or Orlando had heard of demonstrated that he is, indeed, an NBA player.

"I told the players to be great," Van Gundy said of his pregame pep talk. "Other people don't know what we have in [the Magic locker room], but we do." *