Inside the Stats: Markieff Morris in the Clutch

Barry Gossage/NBAE
by Matt Petersen

You're down by one possession (three points or less) late in the game. You need a bucket.

Who gets the ball?

It's a question nearly as old as basketball itself. The ability to create and cash in on a scoring opportunity when it's needed most is one of the most sought-after commodities in the league. Teams bemoan the lack of a player who can "create for himself", especially when the stakes and pressure are at their highest.

Big names who make big shots get the most recognition, but they rarely account for the best of the league's crunch-time performers. NBA closers are much like their MLB counterparts: specialists who are simply comfortable in the clutch.

This season is no different. Only two All-Stars (James Harden, Marc Gasol) rank among the top 10 in total points scored in one-possession games with two minutes or less remaining (hereinafter referred to as "1P2M").

Efficiency also comes into play. A lot of players want the ball with the game on the line, but do they know what to do with it? Is the shot they take a good one? Even if/when it is, do they make it?

In crunch time volume and efficiency, Markieff Morris is one of the best.

The Suns forward ranks seventh in the league in total points scored in the 1P2M window. More importantly, he tops the list in accuracy, hitting a exactly two thirds of his shots (12-of-18) in those situations.

Most impressive of all, Morris has been clutch from nearly everywhere on the floor. Just check out his ridiculous 1P2M shot chart (spoiler: green means above league average).

When 1P2M arrives, Morris is basically spitting green fire from his nostrils.

So how does he do it? Is it learned skill or innate confidence? I asked Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek, who was one of the best clutch players in the league while playing for Utah in 1996-97 (53.8 FG%, 1P2M).

"He’s done a nice job with confidence and focus and determination," Hornacek said. "We’re starting to feel real comfortable with giving him the ball at the end of games and having him make a play. He’s not just a shooter. He can drive it. He can make passes, too. I think he’s takent hat step with growth as a player."

Hornacek's take just might explain why Markieff is good late in general, but how he gets even better as the game gets tighter.

Better if the score is closer

Leads can be deceiving cushions. If and when the leading team has the ball and a two-possession lead late in the game, their instinct is to use as much clock as possible. That's good strategy...if there's a planned result at the end of the shot clock.

All too often, teams find themselves desperate for a semi-quality look before the 24-second clock blows up on them. A possession is wasted. More importantly, the frantic energy used in those final seconds leaves everyone off-kilter and scrambling. That's a dangerous state to be in assuming the defense grabs a rebound. Fast break opportunities abound thanks to the desperate demise of the previous possessions.

This is why closers are so important. They not only provide breathing room on the scoreboard, they allow the defense time to get back, get set and breathe themselves.

"Some guys at the end of games, the game slows down," Hornacek said. "Other guys, the game speeds up."

Incredibly, Markieff gets even less rattled when the scoreboard margin decreases. That's saying something considering he's already hitting two thirds of his shots in a two-possession game with two minutes or less remaining. If the opposition cuts that down to one possession, there's no need to worry. Why? Because Morris has better than a seven-in-10 chance of bumping the lead back up.

Better with less time on the clock

The clock can put just as much emotional pressure on a player as the scores on either side of it. As time winds down, pressure to do more increases. Most players struggle maintaining the same level of calm and purpose, and wind up rushing their shots or making a panicked pass right into the opposition's hands.

In 17 games' worth of 1P2M, Morris has just two total turnovers. After taking care of the ball, Morris is as close to sure thing as there is; his shooting low over the final five minutes of a game (see the graph above) is 54.8 percent -- nearly seven percent higher than his regular season average.

That kind of clutch coolness, Hornacek says, isn't an out-of-nowhere occurrence. Through mid-January of last season, the 6-10 forward had missed his only shot attempt in the 1P2M window. After that and through the end of the season: 6-of-12.

So the "clutch factor", it turns out, is both innate and learned.

"You’ve got to go through it, I think," Hornacek mused. "Last year he had some instances where he didn’t make shots. He was still pretty decent, I thought, for a younger player. This year he’s stepped it up to another level. Now I think when he gets the ball at the end of the game, I think everything has slowed down for him."

As a result, Hornacek is able to make a crunch-time play that much quicker: get the ball to Keef.

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