HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The ball clung to the front of the rim for what seemed an eternity as if pondering whether to reward the surprising Phoenix Suns with a last-second road win in Portland, or to hand this hustling bunch a humbling, back-to-earth dose of heartache.
Markieff Morris, the Suns’ surging reserve power forward and the unlikely reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, waited underneath. His two-handed put-back during a chaotic final few seconds took three small, slow-motion hops on the lip. Finally it dropped, the wrong way — Trail Blazers 90, Suns 89. Morris folded to his knees, slapped the floor, tugged at his jersey with his teeth, bounded down the court, eyes rolling up as if pleading to the basketball gods for a re-do.
“It was right there, man, right there,” Morris told the Arizona Republic afterward. “That’s hard to swallow.”
The Suns tried to avoid a first two-game losing skid of the season tonight against the Brooklyn Nets, but fell 100-98 in overtime.
Wednesday’s loss was the fourth this season for rookie coach Jeff Hornacek‘s feisty Suns, a rebuilding team expected to lose often but with sturdy defense and a fastbreaking offense, is 5-4. Morris was a catalyst. Before that excruciating tip fell off the rim, he had made 33 of his previous 45 shots from virtually every distance and angle on the court.
The 6-foot-10, 245-pounder averaged 22.8 ppg and 8.0 rpg in his previous four games to earn POY honors, becoming the first Suns player to do so since Amare Stoudemire in 2008. It’s an award reserved almost exclusively for starters. Nate Robinson and J.R. Smith sneaked in last season, but you might have to go all the way back to Manu Ginobili in 2007 to find another.
Markieff Bros. share in rise together
Yet as far as Morris is concerned, his award announced on Monday actually went to two Suns reserves.
“When I won the Western Conference player [honor], it was like we both won it,” Morris told NBA.com on Tuesday prior to boarding the team plane to Portland. “He was just real happy. We’re in this together and that’s how we are.”
“He” is Markieff’s identical twin brother, Marcus Morris. Through 1 1/2 seasons of playing on different teams for the first time in their lives, the Morris brothers hadn’t lived up to their 2011 Draft positions — Markieff No. 13 to Phoenix and Marcus No. 14 to Houston — after three seasons together at Kansas. They now plug in like a dual power pack, “it’s like a 2-on-1 type of thing,” as Markieff explained.
They are a rugged forward pairing off the bench. Markieff, who wears No. 11, plays mostly power forward and some center. Marcus, No. 15, plays small forward and takes over at power forward when Markieff slides to center. Together, they average 23.9 ppg and 12.4 rpg. Markieff is the Suns’ second-leading scorer at 15.9 ppg — more than seven points higher than his career average — and second-leading rebounder at 6.4 rpg, doing so in 28.8 mpg. Marcus is averaging 8.0 ppg and 6.0 rpg — nearly doubling his career average of 3.3 — in 22.1 mpg.
Nearly all of Marcus’ minutes come alongside Markieff. Their net rating together (difference between offensive rating and defensive rating) is a robust 7.6 — a key to why Phoenix ranks fifth in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) — and the they’re securing 52.1 percent of the available rebounds.
Their synergy was palpable during the Las Vegas Summer League when both brothers decided to play — even though it wasn’t required of them.
‘We’re better together’
“Sure, we’re better together,” Marcus told NBA.com. “I feel like because we’re together, we can bring the whole team together, they can follow our lead. We’ve been playing together all our lives, so he’s just more comfortable. He’s more comfortable and I help him with what he needs to do and we push each other in in the right direction.”
Or as Markieff put it: “We’re like the Spurs, how they’ve been together for a long time, so used to each other and playing together.”
The twins are identical in nearly every aspect, although Markieff is listed as an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Marcus. Otherwise, good luck telling them apart out of their uniforms. They have the same haircut and both sport trimmed beards. Their 18 tattoos are carbon copies inked in the identical spot. The inside of their wing spans read: “MORRIS BROTHERS, EST. 1989.”
They live in the same house. They drive a similar model Mercedes in the same color, baby blue. They don’t wear the same clothes, but get each other’s approval before going out. They eat the same pre-game meal, mostly chicken alfredo, and they love going home to eat mom’s cornbread. Their mother, Angel, told the New York Times last March that the nearly inseparable twins just weren’t right apart.
“They said ’Kieff hit a rookie wall,'” she said. “I don’t think it was a rookie wall. I just think that when they sent Marcus to the D-League, he was so depressed that ’Kieff felt the same depression.”
So is it any surprise then that since reuniting midway through their NBA sophomore season both are maximizing their abilities? Phoenix’s former regime heeded Markieff’s pleas to trade for his brother last Feb. 21. For new general manager Ryan McDonough, who flipped the roster with nine new players, the brothers were one of a few palatable leftovers.
“At the time I knew they [the Suns] weren’t making the playoffs, but it was a chance to get back with my brother,” Marcus said. “At the time I was at a loss for words, just thanking God that he made that a possibility because I feel like that can bring our skill out more.”
Markieff’s production, on cue, immediately spiked following the trade, even as the Suns spiraled to a disastrous 25-win season that ended coach Alvin Gentry‘s tenure midway through and turned off a loyal fan base. Before Marcus’ arrival, Markieff averaged 7.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 20.3 mpg in 55 games. He shot 39.4 percent overall and 28.1 percent from beyond the arc. In the final 27 games with Marcus, Markieff averaged 10.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg in 26.6 mpg. He shot 43.0 percent and an inexplicable 44.4 percent (20-for-45) from downtown.
“Last year I was getting away from the stuff that got me here, the extra work that I had to put in,” Markieff said. “When he came he definitely reminded me that we got to put this extra work in, as younger guys we’ve got to stay longer hours, we’ve got to try to be great, I’ve got to try to be great.
“That’s what I did. We pushed each other to another limit. He just won’t tell you stuff to make you feel better and to brighten your day up. He’s going to challenge me. If I’m playing good or if I’m playing bad, I think we do that for each other. He’s the first to tell me you got to do this right, and vice-versa.”