Markieff Morris helps Suns silence Cavs in LeBron's return
PHOENIX -- He walked the walk, but wasn't interested in talking the talk.
Well, that's not completely true.
And that was that.
What Morris did do was provide a lifeline for his teammates, who were busy giving up a 19-point, third-quarter lead against back-in-business LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers playmates.
Looking like the late-game, go-to guy the Suns have been attempting to conjure for the last few seasons, Morris had an 11-point fourth-quarter surge on his way to pouring in a career-high 35 points in a 107-100 triumph.
He knocked in 15 of 21 shots, collected seven rebounds and made a crucial defensive play that helped re-establish and hold Phoenix's lead.
"Markieff was awesome ... especially in that fourth quarter," said Suns coach Jeff Hornacek. "We had that stretch there where we had a lot of bad things go on.
"They could've easily quit and stuck their heads down. We just pounded it into Markieff and he came through, play after play. He was huge."
But he wasn't in the mood for small talk -- at least not after doing a TV interview with FOX Sports Arizona.
Anyway, one of the talking points following the Suns' 41st game of the season (they're 23-18) is just how playoff-chase-ready Hornacek's team may be going into the second half of the season.
Before checking in with the second-year coach, please note the Suns were 24-17 at the midway point last season, and Eric Bledsoe's meniscus wasn't nearly as sturdy then as it seems to be now.
So, despite attempting to figure out new rotations, wondering which of his very-good-but-not-great players has "it" on any given work shift and being yelled at by one of them last week, Hornacek has this team in pretty good shape.
"We are healthy now; we do have a deep team," Hornacek said. "Yeah, I think we're better ready and we have another year of experience."
Then he reminded reporters that quite a few NBA teams have improved in the past year.
OK, the Suns aren't exactly a lock for the postseason with 41 games remaining. They have, however, won 11 of their last 16 games, have a three-game lead for the eighth seed in the Western Conference and are only one game back of seventh-seeded San Antonio.
"We're on a rollercoaster right now," Suns forward P.J. Tucker said. "We have some good times when we're rolling and sometimes we have some bad losses. Those last two -- Memphis and San Antonio -- were definitely games we should have won."
Tuesdays' date with James and the Cavaliers -- who had lost seven of eight games with LeBron on R&R (lower back, left knee) -- was beginning to smell very much like another one that was ready to get away.
After going up 80-61 with 3:29 left in the third quarter, Suns defenders lost track of Cleveland newcomer J.R. Smith. By the end of the period, Smith (29 points overall) had knocked in four 3-pointers, and Phoenix entered the fourth quarter up 85-79.
With 8:21 to play, the score was tied at 88. James, who finished with 33 points, was looking fit and deadly, and the Suns' losing streak was on the cusp of three.
So the call went out to Markieff, and he answered.
Converting four isolations over a five-possession stretch, Morris kept Phoenix alive even after Cleveland had snagged a 95-94 lead at 4:37.
The Cavaliers eventually made a defensive switch, assigning James to shut down Morris, whose last bucket was an off-balance, 12-footer against LeBron that put Phoenix up 96-95 at 4:15.
"I'll take the challenge on anybody," James said of guarding Morris. "The guy had a heck of a game; I mean, obviously, a career high for him. We let him get it going early. I tried to turn his water off and he still made a couple shots."
For the record, Morris -- who was wet (2 of 3) from 3 -- had two fewer rebounds and 26 more points than Cavs power forward Kevin Love, a pricey all-star acquired from Minnesota by Cleveland when many Suns fans were hoping the local team would step up and land him.
Love wasn't even on the floor while Markieff was busy winning the game.
Perhaps this perceived lack of media (cough) love inspired Markieff to simply allow his play to do the talking for him.
By the way, another Tuesday spokesman on his behalf was teammate Goran Dragic, who provided 18 points and a few kind words.
"Superstar, all-star, everything," Dragic said of Morris. "He played unbelievable. He was our force tonight. He made every play that we needed him to do."