Like most NBA players, Marcus Morris wants to start. That reality was evident when the veteran was asked in the locker room whether starting or coming off the bench mattered to him after the Celtics beat the Sixers 108-97 on Thursday night at TD Garden.
“Next question,” Morris answered after a couple seconds of silence.
The 6-foot-9 forward has plenty of pride so you can’t fault him for wanting the starting nod, particularly when there is a 21-year-old and 19-year-old playing ahead of him. However, the numbers don’t lie when it comes to the team’s struggles with a small-ball starting five that features Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Morris in the frontcourt as I documented on Thursday. On a night that Stevens went back to Aron Baynes as a starting center (despite the absence of Joel Embiid), Morris showed his value as a featured weapon with the bench unit.
The 28-year-old scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, largely while playing with the second unit, which helped kickstart the Celtics’ offense for the final 16 minutes of the victory. The hosts fought back from a 67-65 deficit by outscoring the Sixers by a 43-30 margin over the final 15 minutes of the game. Morris had 14 points on 5-of-5 shooting during that stretch on an array of midrange jumpers and drives. He also added three assists as well to help the C’s to turn the ride in what was an ugly start to the third quarter.
“I mean, I think I’ve said this before: we really need his scoring,” Brad Stevens said. “And he’s a really good player who is continuing to get comfortable playing here and you know, again, having missed the first couple weeks of the season, I think that’s been quite an adjustment of the preseason. And, but ever since he’s stepped on the court he scores. And I think that’s a pretty special trait and we’re going to need him to continue to be a good scorer for us, because he can stretch bigger guys and he can post smaller guys.”
The breakout performance from Morris leads to an interesting choice for Stevens in the next few weeks. Does he continue to roll with Baynes as the starting center or continue to flip-flop him with Morris in the starting five on a regular basis (depending on matchups) to try to appease the veteran?
It may be a delicate situation for Stevens to handle, but a look at the starting five indicates that the scoring talent of Morris is a little bit wasted when he’s playing alongside the likes of Kyrie Irving, Horford, and Tatum in the starting five. That’s an embarrassment of riches from an offensive standpoint, but it’s also somewhat of an adjustment since it turns Morris into more of a spot up shooter than a shot creator.
“Kyrie is the point guard,” Morris said of playing with the starters. “We play off of him so the ball isn't in my hands as much. I don't have a problem with it so I just adjust. Try to spot up more and knock down open shots. Then when I can my chance with the second unit, I kind of get my postups, pullups, stuff like that.”
While Morris struggled trying to act as one of the sole creators on the all-bench unit in the first half (Smart/Rozier/Ojeleye/Morris/Theis), he really got rolling when Stevens gave him a little more help in the third quarter (Horford instead of Theis). That added offensive threat helped open the floor for the forward, who got hot at the right time for the C’s offense, leading the charge before Tatum and Irving closed the door on the Sixers in the fourth. In general, shot creation from Morris also seems to be more successful against second-line defenders, as was the case against Philly.
“He helps us a lot,” Smart said of Morris’ impact. “He came in and he contributed for a big part of the stint that he was in. He scored the ball in a bunch of different ways that we needed. He got us going on offense. Having guys on the court like Marcus (Morris) is big for us.”
While the starting five didn’t exactly play great at the start of each half (turnovers and an off night from Jaylen Brown were responsible for the -5 in plus/minus), Baynes spending time with the first unit also opened the door for more solid minutes for Daniel Theis. The German was terrific in 13 minutes (4 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks) and playing Baynes with the starters ensures that Theis will get the regular run that he’s earned as an energy big. Otherwise, Stevens has to choose between limited minutes for one or the other off the pine, which seems foolish, since both are playing well enough to get 10-15 minutes a night.
Keeping Morris coming off the bench is the best way to keep those two separated and it’s also the best way to ensure that Smart and Rozier don’t take 20 combined shots a night. As long as Stevens abandons the all-bench look on most nights (it was bad again Thursday) and gives Morris a second option to play off of (Tatum, Horford, etc. with the rest of the bench), the C’s may have found a rotation that works for the long haul. They just need Morris to come to terms with it.