Coming into Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, the Phoenix Suns, up 3-1 and looking to punch their ticket to The NBA Finals in front of a raucous home crowd, could be excused for not worrying too much about L.A. Clippers forward Marcus Morris. After all, the 10-year veteran, clearly hobbled by knee soreness that began in Game 1, had been all but a non-factor in the first four contests, averaging just 6.3 points on miserable 29.4% shooting.
But there was something the Suns didn’t know: Morris’s knee was finally feeling better. A lot better, it seems.
Playing the entire first quarter, Morris was more or less unstoppable, posting up the smaller Devin Booker for fadeaways buckets on three occasions en route to 13 points on 6-for-6 shooting in the opening seven minutes. Morris’s first miss — his only miss of the quarter — came with just 3:50 remaining.
“I just came out aggressive. That’s probably the best I’ve been feeling this series,” Morris told reporters after the game, an impressive 116-102 Clippers victory that now gives L.A. an opportunity to even the series at home Wednesday and force the biggest Game 7 in franchise history.
Morris Was a True Game-Time Decision
While the Suns may have been taken off guard by Morris’s boffo beginning, it’s not as if the Clippers went out their way to trick Phoenix. In fact, it wasn’t until shortly before tip-off that Morris himself realized he was good to go.
“I would say an hour before the game,” Morris said when asked when he knew he could play full strength. “I just felt better than I felt previous games. I knew this was one of those, either I was going to go out and play all the minutes or I wasn’t going to play at all.” In the previous four games, Morris had not exceeded 25 minutes, but on Monday he played 39.
Though the Clippers have been diminished by injuries all season and in the postseason — most notably Kawhi Leonard’s mysterious ACL issue that has kept the two-time Finals MVP sidelined since Game 4 of the Jazz series — Morris’s knee soreness was not the result of anything specific. Instead, Morris attributed it to the unforgiving nature of the playoff schedule, particularly for a Clippers team that has played 18 games in 37 days.
“The schedule, every other day, it’s tough. It’s definitely tough mentally and physically. It’s very tough to really not have time to do anything, really,” explained Morris. “You eat, sleep and shit this game.”
Like the first quarter, Morris missed just one shot in the second quarter, albeit on only three attempts. And though he cooled off substantially in the second half (1-for-6 from the field and 0-for-2 from three) his hot start did more than just put Phoenix on its heels. It allowed Paul George to settle into the action comfortably following an utterly uncomfortable 5-for-20 shooting performance in Game 4.
“I thought getting off to a good start early with Marcus really helped us out,” said coach Ty Lue. “We played through Marcus a little bit. We played through Reggie (Jackson). PG was able to relax a little bit and kind of let the game come to him, and then down the stretch, he took over the game.”
Jackson had another terrific game, but George, who managed only three points on three shots in the first quarter, finished with 41 points (30 in the second half), 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals. Out of 20 total shots, he missed only five in a masterful performance.
“I felt like I was able to ease myself into the game, as opposed to coming out, jacking 10 shots in the first quarter,” said George. “Mook had it going. We wanted to keep giving him looks.”
Morris (and Others) Finally Stifled Ayton
There’s no denying Morris’s impact offensively in Game 5, but his new-found health was perhaps just as valuable on the defensive end, as the Clippers managed to slow down Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton despite being without big-bodied center Ivica Zubac, who sprained his MCL in the third quarter of Game 4.
“T-Lue came to me and said, we’re going to start you at center and we need you to keep Ayton off the glass, and just battle him however I can,” said Morris. “That’s what we did. It was a collective effort.”
Time and time again, Morris and the Clippers swarmed Ayton when he had the ball in the paint and made sure he had a body at all times.
“Thought they poured a lot of bodies on DA,” said Suns coach Monty Williams. “When he was diving he saw two bodies, three bodies at times. When he was trying to get to the offensive boards, he had two guys boxing him out.”
After grabbing 22 rebounds — nine offensive — in Game 4 (when both teams combined to miss 111 shots), Ayton managed only 11 boards on Monday and, more crucially, only three offensive. He finished with just 10 points.
It was undoubtedly a team effort to stop Ayton, but Morris was often the initial point of contact. Morris said he used his experience against “huge” centers in the Clippers’ previous two series to help with Ayton. Against Dallas, Morris routinely matched up against 7-footers Boban Marjanovic and Kristaps Porzingis, and he did a masterful job in the second round against Utah’s Rudy Gobert. But Ayton is more skilled offensively in the paint than all three of those big men, so it was especially imperative that Morris keep Ayton from getting good looks down low.
“Ayton is a great young talent that’s coming up. Obviously, I had to give it everything I got,” said Morris. “But the last two series kind of prepared me for him, Guarding Gobert, I had Boban, a little bit of Porzingis.
“He’s a relentless rebounder, so just selling out on the glass and in the post,” continued Morris. “Just contesting shots, take away what he likes to do, watching a ton of film. Being a tough guy like I am, putting my body on the line.”
Of course, being a tough guy is nothing new for Morris.
“I’ve been doing it for numerous years in this league,” Morris said.
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