Marcus Morris comes up big against Jazz as Suns end skid
PHOENIX -- It could be jumping to wild conclusions to label a win against the 17-32 Utah Jazz as a statement game, but the game was nonetheless significant for the Phoenix Suns.
The statement Friday wasn't that the Suns are elite. It was that they're tough enough to overcome pressure coming from a few different avenues.
With an important game happening more than 900 miles away in Oklahoma City and on their second night of a back-to-back, the Suns started sluggish after getting home at 4 a.m. on a return trip from Portland.
Marcus Morris put in a career-high 34 points to go with another career-high 12 rebounds off the bench, and Phoenix dropped Utah 100-93 to snap their three-game losing streak.
"They were mentally tough, I thought," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "That's a pretty decent team with the size guys they have. We ended up out-rebounding them, I thought our effort was great."
Utah coach Quin Snyder before the game worried the Suns missing center Alex Len, who is out with a sprained ankle, might actually be to the Jazz's detriment. Phoenix could run more and play smaller than usual, he thought -- not a good thing for a Utah squad that runs out one of the bigger front lines in the NBA.
The size issue crept up when Phoenix went with Morris at power forward.
"Made a couple shots early on, felt like I had a good rhythm," Morris said. "Bled, IT (Isaiah Thomas) and those guys did a good job of finding me."
Morris' coach especially liked that the forward found his hot streak within the offense on a night when the ball swung liberally and the extra pass was made often. Morris' 5-of-7 three-point shooting went on the team tab of 14-of-27 from deep, a click off a season-best 52 percent in a game against the Nuggets on Nov. 26.
"That was kind of the theme for us tonight, just catch it and shoot it," Hornacek said. "I thought the last maybe three or four games, we were hesitant about the shots. When it was a shot, they shot it. If it wasn't there, then they drove it and kicked it to somebody else. I thought our boall movement after right in the beginning was pretty good."
The revelation couldn't have come at a better time.
In Oklahoma City, the two squads chasing the Suns for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, the Pelicans and the Thunder, battled until the buzzer. New Orleans forward Anthony Davis hit a double-clutch three-pointer in the final second to seal the win for his team.
Phoenix (29-23) remains a game ahead of New Orleans (27-23) and three games in front of Oklahoma City.
Without Morris' career game, the Suns would have been a half-game from losing their spot in eight place. The 15 minutes he played a night prior in Portland would hint he'd be the one with fresh legs come Friday night.
Hornacek saw his Suns starters off to another slow start -- Miles Plumlee started in place of the injured Len. Phoenix needed a 14-2 spurt from the bench, including eight straight from Morris after he first entered, to take their first lead of 25-24 by the end of the first quarter.
A switch of Eric Bledsoe onto Gordon Hayward on defense helped as well. Hayward scored 11 in the first quarter before quieting down to finish with 24 points, five assists and five rebounds.
"You can't let Gordon have a lot of space," Hornacek said. "He's got a long stride, he's got a great crossover so if you play off of him, he's allowed to cross you over, now he just attacks the basket. We just felt putting Eric on him, switching him off, he can get into the legs a little more and not let him get the crossovers. He still made some shots, still had a heck of a game but we made him work."
The bench helped Phoenix build a double-digit advantage. By halftime, when the Suns led 54-42, Morris had 24 points. It was one off his career high.
A quick 15-point lead early in the third quarter vanished with a 12-2 Jazz run, and Phoenix retained a five-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Yet Utah never seemed to threaten down the stretch.
Phoenix provided Morris help, with Bledsoe scoring 11 points in the second half and combining with Dragic and Thomas to piece together a 16-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio, something that caught Hornacek's eye perhaps as much as anything.
Morris would continue his efficiency, finishing by hitting 11-of-17 shots. He also got to the foul stripe eight times, saying that he's emphasizing that part of his game heading into the All-Star break.
Asked if he'd keep the game ball, he gave this thought that summed up just how big this win was: "I was going to keep it but, you know, it isn't about nothing. I'm going to keep a playoff ball. When we get to the playoffs I'll try to keep that one."