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Brand New Day

After rocky rookie year, Marcus Morris making big impact on both ends of the floor for Houston

HOUSTON - Marcus Morris smiled while draining shot after shot Wednesday evening during his pre-game shooting routine. His form was flawless, his release effortless as he watched one ball after another leave his hand and splash through the net. He laughed off the playful trash talk directed his way from the Rockets’ assistant coaches and kept right on raining in jumpers.

Yet for all those made buckets, nothing from that scene mattered nearly so much as did the image of a smiling, laughing Morris. It revealed a man who has rediscovered his joy for both the game and his place in it. After a rocky rookie season, Marcus Morris is happy once more. And both he and the Rockets are reaping the benefits.

Wednesday’s showing as part of Houston’s 100-96 win over New Orleans was just the latest in Morris’ rapidly expanding catalog of impact performances that have provided the Rockets with a significant and sorely needed boost off the bench. The University of Kansas product scored 13 points – 11 of which came during the Rockets’ remarkable second quarter that saw them outscore the Hornets 38-19 – connected a career-high three times from beyond the arc and swatted a career-best three blocks as well.

Nearly as noticeable and tangible as those impressive numbers, however, is the confidence Morris exudes every time he steps on the floor these days. There is no hesitation when he shoots, no challenge he is loath to accept. Go toe-to-toe with LeBron James? Morris relishes the opportunity. Stand in front of a hard-charging Anthony Davis in the fourth quarter when never-say-die New Orleans is making a furious attempt to overcome a 21-point deficit? Morris will hold his ground, brace for impact and take the tide-turning charge.

The last point is especially huge. The Rockets always knew Morris possessed an offensive arsenal that would allow him to score in this league. What he had to prove to the team’s coaches, however, was that he was willing to do the dirty work on the defensive end as well. And though the sample size is admittedly small at this point, the early returns reveal that Morris’ defensive diligence is indeed paying dividends. Prior to Wednesday’s game he had limited shooters to an anemic 20 percent connection rate on spot-ups and a paltry 27.3 percent on isolations according to Synergy Sports. His work in those areas places him in the league’s 94th and 78th percentile respectively, and he also ranks in the 94th percentile when acting as the big defender against pick-and-roll ball-handlers.

“This is a defense-first team,” he says. “I watched what Chandler (Parsons) did last year; he started defending and that got him on the court. So I watched film and I watch film every day, before and after games, just to see where I can pick my spots on defense.”

What a difference a year makes. Despite entering the NBA as the 14th overall selection in the 2011 draft and reigning Big 12 Player of the Year, Morris barely saw the floor during his rookie campaign. The reality is he wasn’t ready. He had to get stronger, improve his conditioning and, especially, find his way defensively. That realization rocked the 22-year-old. Hard. And when he was assigned to the D-League and subsequently suffered an ankle injury after a red-hot start in Rio Grande Valley it hit him harder still. Morris went into a shell. He was sullen, had little to say and certainly few smiles to share.

“It was definitely hard last year,” Morris admits. “I was definitely questioning myself because anytime you come in being one of the top players in the country in college basketball you think that you ought to come in and play right away and do what you want. Then when I got sent to the D-League, I took it hard. This summer I just put it in my head to never let it happen again, so anything I needed to do – practice, getting in shape or whatever – I just did it.”

The results are there for all to see. Morris changed his approach, put in the work and came to camp hell-bent on making sure the coaches simply couldn’t keep him off the floor. Now, they don’t even want to. After Wednesday’s game, acting Head Coach Kelvin Sampson said he looks forward to when opponents go small against the Rockets because that gives the team a ready-made reason to keep Morris on the court. But let’s face it: With the shot-making and defensive versatility he has shown thus far, the Rockets don’t require excuses to get Morris out there – he’s proving every day he belongs. 

“(The coaches) know that I’m up for the challenge,” he says. “At the end of the day, when the coaches are leaving you out there they know that I’m not afraid. I’m going to take those challenges.”

What’s more, Marcus Morris isn’t just embracing the challenges sent his way – he’s doing so with a smile. And right now the Rockets couldn’t be happier with the results.

And 1s: Jeremy Lin had a rough night shooting the ball, hitting just two of his ten attempts from the field, but after the game Kelvin Sampson praised Lin for the tough defense he provided on the other end of the floor. Lin came into the game ranked fourth in the NBA averaging 2.43 thefts per game and that number will go up after he collected three more steals Wednesday night.

“I thought Jeremy Lin especially was tough on defense tonight. Jeremy is tough; he doesn’t get enough credit for that. He sticks his nose in there and gets on the floor after loose balls and is always in good position and he moves the ball, too.”

Sampson also shared his thoughts on how he envisions Lin’s role expanding as the season goes on and how much confidence the entire Rockets’ coaching staff has in the 24-year-old’s abilities.

“As the season goes on, we’d like to get Jeremy more involved in pick-and-rolls. Teams jump on him and force him to his left hand a lot and Jeremy is not as effective going left as he is going right. But as individual development he’s got to continue to work on that left hand so we can play pick-and-roll with him to different sides of the floor.

“I didn’t think Jeremy took a bad shot all night. I liked every shot he attempted. I always look at him and give him a little fist bump and tell him, ‘Keep shooting, hoss – the next one will go in.’ I want him to have that confidence because I have that confidence in him.”

QUOTES

KELVIN SAMPSON

(on Marcus Morris’ growth)

A lot of it is trust both ways. Players want you to trust them but they have to give you something that you can trust. I think all our coaches really trust Marcus now. He invested and earned the right to be pretty good. Marcus still has a long way to go and has a lot of room to growth. But when you look at him, it’s easy to pull for guys who work hard and I’m really pleased with Marcus’ growth. I actually look forward to seeing the other teams go small so I can put him in; I like having him on the floor. He’s probably our second-best go-get-yourself-a-shot player.

(on Jeremy Lin)

I thought Jeremy Lin especially was tough on defense tonight. Jeremy is tough; he doesn’t get enough credit for that. He sticks his nose in there and gets on the floor after loose balls and is always in good position and he moves the ball, too. As the season goes on, we’d like to get Jeremy more involved in pick-and-rolls. Teams just on him and force him to his left hand a lot and Jeremy is not as effective going left as he is going right. But as individual development he’s got to continue to work on that left hand so we can play pick-and-roll with him to different sides of the floor.

I didn’t think Jeremy took a bad shot all night. I liked every shot he attempted. I always look at him and give him a little fist bump and tell him, ‘Keep shooting, hoss – the next one will go in.’ I want him to have that confidence because I have that confidence in him. He’s had games this year, I’m thinking about the Atlanta and Detroit games on the road – Jeremy has had games where he’s made those shots. But he’s not what you would call a pure shooter. He’s more of a streak shooter so he’ll have those streaks where he makes those.

(On the team play in the second quarter) “I think the second quarter is about as good as we can play. Our second unit energy, the ball movement, I thought was outstanding.”

(On the Rockets being a young team)  “It's always an issue with a young team. They're here when things are going great and then they're here when things are not going good and you're always trying to manage temperament sometimes. We've got to continue to grow. We've had double digit leads in two or three games thus far and we've managed to lose them and we give up a large majority of them. It's just an area that we've got to grow in. You learn to not overreact to things that young teams do. These are just teaching points and we've got to get better. I saw a lot of good things tonight. I thought we executed our set pretty good but when things start getting tight, we tend to get into our own phone booths instead of trusting each other and moving the ball and let the ball find the shot. That's something we've just got to continue to emphasize and work on.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On the Rockets surrendering a big lead) “We can't keep getting these double digit leads in the first half and give them away. I think this is our third time doing that...Detroit and Atlanta and now tonight. It's something we just have to clean up. We can't allow that. We've got to come out there in the third quarter with energy and not allow that. When we're up by 20 (points) we have to extend to 24 (points). We can't keep letting them go on runs like that. It's definitely a good run for us at home going on this road trip.”

(On the play of the Rockets bench) “Those guys provide a huge spark for us. We're going to need them throughout the season. When the starting five comes out flat like that, that's their (the bench) job to come out here and give us a boost and give us energy and that's exactly what they did. They were a big part of the win tonight.

MARCUS MORRIS

I’m very confident. Anytime the coaches just keep telling you that we need you to be a spark off the bench and we need you to contribute, it definitely put a lot of confidence in me to go out there and just play.

(can you look back and see how everything you went through last year was beneficial in the big picture?)

Definitely. It was definitely hard last year. I was definitely questioning myself because anytime you come in being one of the top players in the country in college basketball you think that you ought to come in and play right away and do what you want. Then when I got sent to the D-League, I took it hard. This summer I just put it in my head to never let it happen again, so anything I needed to do – practice, getting in shape or whatever – I just did it.

It means a lot. They know that I’m up for the challenge. At the end of the day, when the coaches are leaving you out there they know that I’m not afraid. I’m going to take those challenges. Any team we play against, I want to be out there giving it my best and trying to win the game.

(how big has it been for you to play so well on the defensive end, too?)

It’s just locking in. This is a defense-first team. I watched what Chandler did last year; he started defending and that got him on the court. So I watched film and I watch film every day, before and after games, just to see where I can pick my spots on defense.

JAMES HARDEN

(On bouncing back) “It is very important. We played pretty well against Miami. We just wanted to come back and get a win especially going on this road trip. It was key for us to get a win.”

(On him receiving double-team coverage from the opposing team) “Yeah, it is my job because I'm creating. I give the ball up. I trust my other teammates to make the right play and thus far they have done a good job of it.”

JEREMY LIN

(On his shooting tonight) “It's just one of those days. Great shots felt good but didn't go down and next game they will. You just gotta move on. Some nights it's going to be like this. I'm going through a little bit of a rough stretch but it always turns around.”

(On the win) “I'm glad we won. I think the most important thing is that we came out here and we won the game. I'm definitely happy that we won.”

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS COACH MONTY WILLIAMS

(On the game) “The bad second quarter was our biggest problem as we gave up 39 points. I’m just not used to that and I want our guys to understand that is no way to play the game of basketball. You’re not going to overcome quarters like that on most nights in this league. We won three quarters and only had 11 turnovers and still lose the game. There’s something extraordinary happening and it was the 39 (point) quarter and we only scored 18. When you have a quarter like that it’s hard to rebound but I thought the guys on our team showed a lot of guts and character getting back in the game. It was a lot of good stuff but too little too late.”

(On halftime speech) “I’m sure the guys were ready to turn it around but at the halftime session I have to do something to remind them of who we are. Were out there playing in the second quarter like were the Globetrotters or something. This team was trying to kick our butt and we have to have a mindset of playing a tough, nasty style of basketball and I just didn’t see that in the second quarter.”

GREIVIS VASQUEZ

(On the last possession) “That was a tough possession for us but we didn’t lose the game on that possession. We won three quarters and we lost one quarter and ended up losing the game and that doesn’t make any sense. We have to come out with energy and match up to their intensity. Our energy wasn’t there in the second quarter. We tried to come back and fought back but it was too late.”

ANTHONY DAVIS

(On the game) “The second quarter was when it got out of hand. That’s what it was. We just gave up too many points in the second quarter. We were trying to fight and come out of a hole and tried to make shots. We have to get better as a team defensively. We started playing better defense and we tried to lock up defensively and that led to our offense where guys started making shots. We started attacking the basket and getting to the line. Chandler Parsons made a great shot to go up by four and that really hurt us. Houston’s a great team and hopefully we’ll have another good game with them.”

AUSTIN RIVERS

(On the game’s last possession defending Parsons) “We played good team defense and I thought I played pretty good defense as I was right there with him. He (Parsons) just shot it up there and made it. He made a really tough shot and there’s nothing you can do about it. The only thing I could’ve possibly done about it was block it. He’s 6’9 and I was right there with a hand in his face. There’s no room and he launched it up. It’s one of those shots that just happened to go in. It didn’t come down to that shot, it was our second quarter that blew the game open. We had to crawl back in the game. We out played them for three quarters but they just killed us so badly in the second quarter we just lost.”

NOTES

The Rockets held off the Hornets for a 100-96 win tonight. New Orleans took a 21-point deficit down to just two points (98-96) with just 1:49 left in the game. The winning team had overcome a deficit of at least 13 points in five of the previous six meetings between the Rockets and Hornets.

Houston moved to 129-32 (.801) all-time in games when they hit the century mark at Toyota Center. New Orleans came into this game allowing just 88.6 points per game.

The Rockets, who made a season-high 12 shots from beyond the arc (12-34 3FG) vs. Miami (11/12/12), went 10-of-29 (.345) from downtown tonight.

Houston scored a season-best 64 first-half points on 24-of-45 (.533) from the field, marking the most points in a half by the Rockets since a 69-point first half back in 2010-11 at Minnesota (4/13/11).

The Rockets also netted a season-high 39 second-quarter points tonight, surpassing their previous best of 33 points scored in the second quarter vs. Miami (11/12/12).

New Orleans went an opponent season-best .952 (20-21 FT) from the free throw line tonight.

James Harden totaled 30 points (10-20 FG, 9-11 FT) and four assists tonight, which marked his third 30-point performance of the season (sixth career). It was also Harden’s third consecutive 20-plus point outing. Prior to this season, Harden’s longest streak of 20-point games was two in a row. He has already strung together three straight on two separate occasions in 2012-13.

Omer Asik finished 15 points (6-10 FG), 12 rebounds and two blocks tonight, which gave him four double-doubles on the season (five career). Asik also extended his career-best streak of double-digit scoring games to five in a row (11/7/12-11/14/12).

Chandler Parsons posted 13 points (4-14 FG) and 10 boards tonight, which was his first double-double of 2012-13 (third career).

Marcus Morris notched 13 points (5-9 FG) behind a career-best three 3-pointers tonight (3-5 3FG). Morris also led the Rockets with a career-high three blocked shots.

Toney Douglas also had 12 points off a season-best 4-of-5 outing from beyond the arc tonight.

Jeremy Lin recorded all three of Houston’s steals tonight. Lin has now recorded four games this season with at least three steals.

Greivis Vasquez, who came into this game fourth in the NBA in assists per game (8.8), led the Hornets with a career-high 24 points (8-15 FG, 3-4 3FG, 5-5 FT) and a game-high nine assists tonight.

Ryan Anderson recorded 20 points (9-19 FG) and a team-high 12 rebounds tonight, giving him his second double-double of the season.

Al-Farouq Aminu had 14 points (6-15 FG), seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks tonight. Aminu also notched 11 points (4-13 FG) and 10 boards in the 2011-12 season finale at Houston (4/26/12).

Austin Rivers scored a career-high 10 points (2-4 3FG) tonight. He previously scored nine points while adding three rebounds, three steals, two assists and one block at Chicago (11/3/12).