Two years ago, Markieff Morris played for a 39-win team headed nowhere in the Phoenix Suns. At best he was a spectator as the Wizards, then the No. 5 seed and starting Nene at power forward, upset the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the conferrence semifinals only to then have Paul Millsap say this: "Internally, we felt like we won the game."
Fast forward to Sunday, when Morris was playing in his first playoff game in six NBA seasons. It was his first full season in Washington. A matchup problem for Millsap whenever they're matched up this season, Morris dominated. Though statictisally it didn't look lopsided, it was indeed.
Millsap isn't getting under their skin as much as Morris appears to be getting under his.
"The ball is like gold now. Every possession counts, so I'm going head-first every play," said Morris after 21 points on 8 of 19 shooting, seven rebounds and four blocks. "We're going to jostle the whole series and that's what it's going to be."
Morris picked up his first foul 17 seconds into the game on Millsap's move to the basket. Despite that, he was able to stay out of trouble and on the floor. Millsap had the better first half in terms of scoring with 12 points, but Morris closed strong.
He made all three foul shots after Millsap ran into him on a three just before the halftime buzzer and had words with his foe on the way out. Then Morris emerged from the locker room more edgy than when the game started, when he had consecutive blocks on Millsap and Dwight Howard in the second quarter.
"We've been telling him in the second half of the season, he's not going to get open unless he creates opportunities to get open," coach Scott Brooks said. "He's been doing that the last couple of games of the season."
Morris' three, then a jumper and floater put the Wizards ahead for good as they erased what had been an eight-point first-half deficit for good to win Game 1, 114-107, at Verizon Center.
The edge Morris had goes beyond numbers. When Atlanta allowed Howard to defend him, Morris can pull him so far away from the basket it opens up the floor for the willing passer. Howard tends to be reluctant to vacate and that's how Morris made one of his three-pointers.
Nene was valuable for the Wizards, particularly three years ago when they won their first playoff series. Then-first-timers John Wall and Bradley Beal didn't play well and he carried them. But when the Wizards went up against the Hawks the next year, the aged 7-footer was playing out of position trying to chase around Millsap. Drew Gooden wasn't up for the task. And when the Wizards tried to to make Kris Humphries and Jared Dudley stretch fours, they didn't match up well with Millsap, either.
Morris does. The biggest mismatch with Atlanta comes when Ersan Ilyasova tries to stay in front of Morris who is too good off the dribble and facing up. He can get to his spots at will and it forces Atlanta to help. Kelly Oubre's three-pointer to give the Wizards a 95-83 lead in the fourth came off such a play, when Morris reversed the ball to Brandon Jennings in the opposite corner who then found Oubre spotting up.
"Like I said last year when we first got him, I was excited. He changed everything right away for us," Wall said. "We didn't have to go big in the post anymore. If any team had a four man that could score, we could go right back at him and he can score on their man in the post. He changed our team a whole lot and he understands that. But most importantly, he was one of those guys that bought in. He had never been to the playoffs before. He shied away from getting a lot of shots at times but he's doing everything to help our team win."
Morris doesn't require such help if he's defending Ilyasova, who also can stretch to the three-point line, or Millsap. That means the Wizards don't have to leave shooters open to compensate for a deficiency like they used to do. Millsap had four turnovers, a key one to start the third quarter as Morris inspired a game-changing run. He went up to draw contact that Morris avoided, left his feet and came down with the ball for a traveling violation. A 48-45 halftime deficit became a 57-52 lead three minutes into the third and the Wizards would never look back.
"It's incredible, man. He's been telling me that he's been ready for this moment since he was drafted," Oubre said of Morris. "He hadn't had the opportunity for seven years, but now that the opportunity is here, it's time to go take it. It don't matter if it's your first or your seventh year, when you make it to the playoffs you're going to make a name for yourself. That's what he's doing. That's what we're all trying to do."
Wall had his career-playoff high with 32 points and 14 assists. The entire starting five seemed to be back to their pre-All-Star break form. Each scored in double figures.
"When he's playing as well as he did today for us," Wall said of Morris, "we're unstoppable."