Markieff Responds to Midseason Message

Barry Gossage/NBAE

Markieff Morris appeared on the verge of breaking his midseason slump at New York on Jan. 13. The Suns were struggling for energy, and the third-year forward had provided it with two offensive boards and good activity in the paint in his first nine minutes off the bench.

Then he was ejected, the result of two quick technical fouls.

The sooner-than-expected end to Morris’ night punctuated a frustrating five-game stretch in which he averaged just 6.6 points on 28.9 percent shooting. The Suns went 1-4 in that span.

Head Coach Jeff Hornacek saw the correlation, knew the struggles of his sixth man mirrored those of the team. He pulled him aside.

“You haven’t played well,” Hornacek told Morris. “The only way to get out of it is just play as hard as you can. Just keep sprinting up and down the court. Go after all the rebounds. It may not come tonight, but it will come soon if you get back to that intensity.”

It didn’t come soon. It came right away.

The very next game, Morris erupted for 24 points (9-of-14 FG), seven rebounds and four assists in just 29 minutes. Two nights later, he turned in a massive double-double of 23 points and 12 rebounds.

He hasn’t stopped since. Since that frustrating night in the Big Apple, Morris has looked a lot like the player that won Western Conference Player of the Week in November. He’s averaging 17.7 points on 52.2 percent shooting to go along with 6.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game, and has scored in double figures in every game.

For Hornacek, Morris’ turnaround isn’t rocket science.

“When you’re struggling, and he was in a struggle period there, he started looking at how to get out of it,” Hornacek said. “Playing hard. Playing hard will get you out of it. He knows he’s too good of a player to have too long of a lull. We’re trying to get him to do that every night.”

“Jeff just said ‘we need you. We need you to keep this up,’” Morris said. “I picked it up. The offense changed a little bit. I’m scoring more, doing more on defense, just keeping up the energy, basically.”

Efficiency has accompanied the energy. He’s shooting 45 percent from three in his current stretch, but less than 20 percent of his shot attempts occur outside the arc.

“We need Markieff’s energy, scoring in the post on guys. It keeps us from shooting nothing but jump shots...He allows us to play that inside-out game that not a lot of our other guys give us.”

— Jeff Hornacek

Instead he’s been featured more often in post-ups against smaller defenders or face-up isolations against taller, slower big men. In two showings against the vaunted Pacers’ interior defense, Morris shot 12-of-24 against a variety of defenders, including Roy Hibbert and David West.

The Suns thrive off of Morris’ scoring, knowing he offers perhaps the most versatile offensive skill set on the team.

“We need Markieff’s energy, scoring in the post on guys,” Hornacek said. “It keeps us from shooting nothing but jump shots. The other guys can post up some, but consistently, we can go to him five, six, seven times and then they have to start figuring out what to do with him. he kicks it out and we get good stuff. He allows us to play that inside-out game that not a lot of our other guys give us.”

The team-wide results go hand-in-hand with Morris’ play. Since the 1-4 stretch that coincided with the forward’s five-game struggles, Phoenix has gone 8-2. Morris holds the second-highest true shooting percentage (63.7) on the team in that span, just 0.3 percent lower than Goran Dragic.

To the 24-year-old’s credit, he doesn’t consider his turnaround remarkable or even individual.

“I think everybody would respond to it the way I did,” Morris said. “I just want to do what I can for the team. We have a great group of guys and we just want to win as much as possible. We’re just having fun.”

Hornacek, however, feels Morris’ individual success is the barometer by which the team can be measured on a night-to-night basis.

“We’ve said it all year, when Markieff plays well, we usually do pretty well,” Hornacek said. “He’s been huge and that’s what we expect out of him.