Marcus Morris' Basketball Journey, Part 1: How a noted 'hot head' became a leader

Josue Pavon
March 12, 2019 - 11:12 am
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(This is part one of a three-part feature series centered on Celtics forward Marcus Morris' career and role with the 2018-19 Celtics.)

For the first time in his career, Marcus Morris was on the verge of reaching the NBA Finals.

The undermanned Celtics had pushed LeBron James and the Cavaliers to the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals, a summit Morris had never reached in his eight-year career. To punch a ticket to the Finals, the Celtics had to beat Cleveland at TD Garden – where they hadn't lost during the 2018 postseason.

For Morris, he wasn't even sure if he'd fit in Boston, let alone advance this far in the playoffs. In a move that was made to create cap space to sign Gordon Hayward, the Celtics dealt Avery Bradley to the Pistons in exchange for Morris, who – along with his twin Markieff – was months away from heading to court, facing possible jail time for aggravated assault charges.

In Morris' opinion, the trial – one that found him not guilty – gave him a bad reputation around the league.  Thus, he kept to himself throughout his first couple of months with the Celtics.

"I felt like people were looking at me like I was a hot head.  I just felt like that's kind of the approach (but) no one knew me," Morris explained. "I have a rep around the league of being a tough dude, emotional guy so I just thought that everybody thought I was a hot head and that I wasn't a good dude."

As was the case in Morris's previous stops, teammates grew to like him and he soon became a strong locker room presence. He gravitated towards players like Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart, bonding with each throughout his first year in Boston and from there they formed chemistry.

"Time heals all, you know? As I got to know these guys and they got to know me, who I am, it's like with every team I've been on," Morris said. "When I first get there, it's like you don't know him and then when I get there it's like everybody loves me, from the entire organization all the way down."

What was most impressive about Boston's 2018 run was that they did it without All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward – two starters who were projected to take the Celtics to the next level alongside veteran Al Horford. Still, the Celtics prevailed with youngsters like Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Rozier, along with Morris, who emerged as one of Brad Stevens' most reliable scorers but in the end, the underdog Celtics came up short.

Boston dropped Game 7 against James and the Cavaliers. However, with Irving and Hayward set to return, the 2018-19 season couldn't have looked any brighter.

 The bad taste of his first Game 7 loss motivated Morris ahead of this campaign. In training camp, he embraced his supporting role by coming up with a new mantra for the second unit – 'B.W.A' – an acronym that stood for "Bench With Attitude." It was a statement by Morris, who was confident enough to call the Celtics' bench the best in the league.

However, the start of the regular season didn't go as planned and because of Boston's 10-10 start, Stevens decided to change his starting lineup by inserting Morris and Marcus Smart into his starting five.

Stevens sat Morris down and explained the decision.

"He just gave me credit on being a veteran, playing well, not letting anything distract me; just being consistent," Morris said. "He was like 'Listen, you've been consistent, you've been one of our best players. I think you deserve to start and that's how it went. He was like 'Until otherwise, you're a starter and continue to play. Do what you do.' And it just went from there and I respect him for that.

"Not saying that guys should come out of the starting lineup, but if teams are playing well, guys are playing well, I think you get enough credit to come in and start and see how things happen. We started out a little shaky so I guess he just wanted to try something new, you know?"

Since the switch, Morris has taken on a newfound leadership role. He believes it's his job not only to perform at a high level but to also lead by example and hold his teammates accountable – a part of him being a leader that isn't always easy.

When Morris noticed Brown wasn't putting forth enough effort, by his standards, against the Heat in Miami earlier this season, he didn't hesitate to get in Brown's face during a second-quarter timeout. Video of the confrontation surfaced online, which showed Morris shoving his teammate after getting in Brown's face and the two had to be separated.

While the confrontation may have put a wrinkle in Morris' relationship with Brown, a level of respect between the two hasn't faltered. It doesn't always show from the outside looking in, but Morris is revered as one of the team's appointed leaders, something Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen sees in Morris every day.

"If you get a snapshot of anything, you can pretty much control whatever narrative you want," Allen said. "But I would like to think that if you ask Jaylen about Marcus Morris as a teammate, I would like to think he'd sing his praises, and even the other way around. I've seen him on numerous occasions sitting next to Jaylen, try to sew into him about the game and angles and vision about what he sees. He's 29, but he's not as young as some of the other core players. He's been around, but he's not old.

"He's been around enough settings to know right from wrong. He came to this space and added value. I think all of those guys are happy to be teammates with him."

The following day, Brown told reporters he was past it and that things were fine. Morris says the two have plenty of respect for each other, but explained that what happened in Miami was simply Morris doing his job, and he doesn't regret correcting his younger teammate.

"We definitely have a good relationship, but I'm older, I'm an OG so I give out the OG calls," Morris explained. "After that little scuffle, he understood where I was coming from and we hashed it out.

"It was nothing that triggered it; I was just being a leader. I told him he wasn't giving us his best and he wasn't trying hard. "

That wasn't the only time Morris let his emotions get the best of him in public. Following an embarrassing loss to the Clippers – where the Celtics gave up a 28-point lead – he didn't hold back when he opened up to reporters about not having fun, which had been a season-long struggle. Morris saw other teams playing with a togetherness the Celtics lacked.

"I want to win down the line," Morris explained that night. "It has to be fun, have to have fun doing this. I look at all these other teams and guys are jumping on the court and guys are moving the ball, guys are setting up and helping guys on defense, guys are generally happy for each other. I look at this team and I don't see that."

The outburst opened up new dialogue between the players. One of the most important conversations Morris had shortly after his postgame rant was with his starting point guard, Irving. The two have had deep conversations in the past about the direction of their team, but this one wasn't as challenging as Morris initially thought it would be. 

"He agreed with me," Morris said. "We talked about it, he agreed with everything I said because he understands where I was coming from and he felt the same. Just so happens I said it publicly and it just came out.

"With Ky, we have a close relationship. We talk about stuff like that. We try to hash it out and figure out ways to make things better."

Irving and Morris have grown close this season. They speak to each other regularly; constantly brainstorming and figuring out new ways to make the team better.

"The thing about me and Ky is that we're both veterans who came in the league the same year so we have a lot in common, so it just clicked," Morris explained. "I understand what kind of player he is, I understand where he likes the ball. He's a go-to guy, he's a scorer but he passes really well and I knew once I got there (starting lineup), if I could knock that triple at a high rate, I'd be out there for a while. The defense and communication – I'm a veteran, that comes easy."

Boston won two straight before the All-Star break. It seemed as if Morris' rant lit a fire, but the flame quickly flickered. Following the break, the Celtics proceeded to lose five of their first six games, including a 23-point beating by the division-leading Raptors. 

For the Celtics, chemistry has been an ongoing issue all year long. From scuffles on the court to players' meetings in the locker room, the Celtics have seemingly spent the entire regular season trying to get on the same page.

The publicized meeting that left media members in the hallway for 40 minutes while the Celtics locker room remained closed after a loss to the Bucks wasn't the first.

According to Morris, losing to the tanking Suns at home on Dec. 19 triggered the initial players-only meeting.

"The first day it was more just, you know, the veterans talking and then the second day was more of just everybody putting it out there -- how they felt, about their roles, whatever, you know it was earlier in the season," Morris said. "It was much needed to see where guys' heads were at. I think at the end of the day with a team at this age, you need that. Just to know how everybody's going in and I think it was really helpful for us."

Finding consistency remains a constant battle. But Morris refused to give up. He vowed to bring the "soul" back to his team in hopes of bringing out the very best from his teammates.

In the end, it took a long plane ride to California for the Celtics to find common ground and a rosier outlook on their season. It triggered Boston's most impressive win of the year, a 128-95 blowout against the champion Warriors.

Boston followed with two more wins against the Kings and Lakers before being drubbed by the Clippers on Monday. As a cohesive group, the Celtics have a chip on their shoulder and hope to silence the critics that have questioned if the fifth-seeded Celtics can in fact reach the NBA Finals with guys like Morris and Irving leading the charge.

At this stage in his career, Morris didn't think he'd ever get this opportunity, a shot at an NBA title. He's confident the Celtics can get there, isn't afraid to call out his guys, and thus has helped build a culture that Morris believes will succeed.

"We're trying to build something, we're trying to build something serious heading into the playoffs," Morris said. "It's starting to come together, it's fun. Guys are enjoying it, guys are happy for each other. We're just trying to rack up wins as much as possible."

Coming next in Part 2: How Morris's relationship with Celtics assistant and fellow Philadelphia native Jerome Allen has blossomed in Boston.