With spotlight on the other Marcus, Morris quietly proving his value


BOSTON — Midway through Brad Stevens’ seven-minute huddle with reporters before Wednesday’s practice at the Auerbach Center, the Celtics’ coach was asked if Marcus Morris had been the team’s most consistent player this season.

“Yes,” Stevens answered before the reporter could even punctuate his question. And, almost as quickly, another question came flying in and the conversation veered to another topic.

It was perfectly appropriate considering how Morris’ solid play on both ends of the court this season has flown quietly under the radar. On a team with maddening inconsistencies, it’s Morris who has been a bit of a rock with his individual play, providing reliable two-way effort and making an impact in a variety of roles.

Still, he’s not even the most popular Marcus in Boston right now. That honor goes to Marcus Smart, who has been (rightfully) showered with attention for the jolt he gave the Celtics during Monday’s confidence-inspiring win in New Orleans. 

What’s being overshadowed is that Morris, who likewise elevated to a starting role on Monday, had a pretty tangible impact as well while putting up 19 points and a team-high 11 rebounds over 30 minutes. All while being tasked with trying to cool down Nikola Mirotic on the defensive end.

While a pack of reporters crowded around Smart before the Celtics’ off-day practice Wednesday, Morris peacefully navigated his typical pre-practice shooting routine, stopping only to chat and joke with assistant coach — and fellow Philadelphia native — Jerome Allen.

After finishing his shooting drill with a flourish of five consecutive corner 3-pointers, Morris turned to a lone reporter and suggested he was simply trying to give the team some extra energy and extra grit at the start of games.

"I just felt like, the start of the games, we haven’t had that hit-first mentality yet,” said Morris. "And that’s what we’ve been missing.”

Enter two members of the Morris-dubbed B.W.A. — Bench With Attitude — who brought the A with them to the first unit.

“We definitely emphasized [hitting first] more,” said Morris. "Smarty came in there and I came in there, and as a team, we recognized that. So we just tried to do our own part, and play as hard as we could.”

Monday’s starting lineup of Smart, Morris, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Jayson Tatum is now the second most used lineup on the team, having logged a still-meager 52 minutes together. It’s also been one of Boston’s best lineups, owning a plus-25.2 net rating while coupling elite ratings on both offense (121.7) and defense (96.6).

Celtics fans are clamoring for Smart to stay in the starting lineup (Stevens sounds open to the idea but cautioned that Smart’s energy with the second unit has been important, too). Tough decisions loom when Jaylen Brown is healthy again after a hard fall in Dallas (he sat out Monday’s game and did not practice Wednesday) and whenever the Celtics desire to elevate Gordon Hayward back to the starting unit. Stevens has suggested the lineup will remain in flux and he will not overreact to one solid outing, if only because the Celtics have rarely maintained consistency.

Morris was likewise hesitant to make a pitch for any lineup when asked if he wanted to see Monday’s first unit stay together, maybe recognizing that Celtics players need to remain amenable to change until this team figures out how all these puzzle pieces fit best.

"I don’t want to talk too much about [lineups],” said Morris. "We’re just trying to build something. We’re trying to get off to great starts. And we’ll see how it goes.”

And Morris is ready for whatever role he’s thrust into.

"Me, personally, yeah,” said Morris. "I can’t really speak for other guys and how they take other roles but, me personally, I feel like I’ve been doing that my entire career. Wherever I’m put at, I maximize and do the best I can.”

Here’s the thing about Morris, coming into the season it felt like he might eventually end up the odd man out. In the final year of his contract, and the Celtics likely unable to retain him next summer, it felt like any sort of roster logjam might end with the team trading Morris — something that could fetch future assets but also help the Celtics dip below the luxury tax that they are currently on pace to pay.

But Morris has asserted himself as a key contributor at both ends of the floor. Morris’ base stat line is solid: 13.9 points and 6.7 rebounds over 26.4 minutes per game. He's shooting 48.8 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, both notably higher than his career averages (43.1 FG% / 36.1 3PT%).

What’s more, Morris is averaging a team-best 1.065 points per play on offense, according to Synergy Sports data. That ranks him in the 81st percentile among all players but narrow to the 100 players with at least 250 possessions finished and Morris is 22nd overall in the NBA in points per play. For sake of comparison among the 100 qualifiers, LeBron James is four spots lower at 1.057 ppp and Anthony Davis is 33rd on that list at 1.046).

Not all the advanced metrics are glitzy for Morris. The Celtics own a net rating of minus-0.2 when he’s on the court, one of only two regulars in the negative (Brown the other at minus-2.3). And Boston’s net rating is plus-5.0 when Morris is on the bench (the team’s defensive rating plummeting to an impossibly low 93.9 in his 490 minutes off the court). 

It means that, while Morris is having a solid individual season, it’s not always translating to team success. But the strong numbers during his floor time with the first unit Monday suggests it might just be a matter of finding the right combinations.

It sort of hammers home the notion that the Celtics have all the individual talent but are still trying to figure out ways to make it work as a group — and do so without the maddening lulls in intensity that have contributed to an 11-10 start. 

For his part, Morris is confident the Celtics might have found a little spark in New Orleans. While players have sometimes been hesitant to get overly excited about a small step forward, Morris thinks Monday served as a blueprint for how to start games on the right foot.

Asked how confident he is the team will build off it, he said, "Very confident. Very confident. We’re in a great mood. We understand what we need to do to get the game started going forward.”

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