Last summer it was Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic leading the Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference finals in the NBA bubble. Murray exploded in the playoffs, averaging 26.5 points, including two incredible 50-point games. Jokic was budding into the MVP-caliber player we all witnessed this season, recording 10 double-doubles and going toe-to-toe with Anthony Davis.
Fast forward to this year’s playoffs and it’s a significantly different story. Murray went down with a season-ending ACL injury early in April. Jokic is still doing Jokic things and is the frontrunner for MVP this season. But it’s four-year veteran Monte Morris who became the unsung hero for the Nuggets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against a tough Portland Trail Blazers team.
“I think people forget that going into this postseason, Monte had 33 playoff games under his belt. This isn’t his first rodeo,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “I love how he approaches the game. He was one of the all-time leaders in assists-to-turnover ratio in NCAA history. He’s a floor general, he makes the right play and he doesn’t make mistakes.”
'Just be aggressive'
Morris currently leads the Nuggets in +/- with a +36 in the playoffs and is doing it all coming off the bench behind Austin Rivers and rookie Facundo Campazzo. He had a slow start averaging only 10.5 points in 28 minutes in the first four games with Malone adding, “I don’t think Monte Morris was the usual Monte Morris in the first few games.”
It wasn’t until Game 5 when Morris kicked it into another gear and became the difference-maker this Nuggets team needed with the absence of Murray, P.J. Dozier and Will Barton. Morris finished with a career-high 28 points in a double-OT win, overshadowed by Damian Lillard’s history-making 55-point performance and put the Nuggets one win away from advancing to the Western Conference semifinals for the third season in a row.
“When you hear it from your teammates and coaches, ‘just be aggressive,’ I had to change that gear and hit that other level,” Morris told Yahoo Sports. “Everyone’s been telling me, ‘It makes things easier for everyone when you’re in attack mode,’ so that’s what I’m going to stick to in this playoffs mode.”
Morris and Jokic put on a pick-and-roll clinic, and the 6-foot-2 point guard made all the right reads. If CJ McCollum went under the screen, Morris made him pay from the 3-point line. Portland center Jusuf Nurkic never switched off Jokic, creating some room to the rim or the option to pull up from the elbow for an easy jumper.
“The two-man game, the on-court chemistry and synergy between Monte and Nikola was just incredible,” Malone added. “As a head coach, you love having a player on the floor that is going to run your team, value the ball and make everyone around him better.”
“His focus to make the right play every time is really good for us,” Jokic added. “He’s not a player that makes a lot of mistakes.”
The on-court chemistry stems from the friendship the two players have off the court. Two years ago, Morris and Jokic lived in the same housing complex and carpooled to practices and the airport for away games.
“We’ve always been close,” Morris said. “We would talk about everything on those car rides, not just basketball. We’d talk about his life back home and my life in Flint [Michigan]. Over time, we definitely got closer and we both know how each other plays the game now — where he wants the ball, where I like getting screens — so it’s been good to build that chemistry.”
Morris came alive the last two games, posting 50 points and averaging 37 minutes. He shot 47% from 3-point range and credits Barton for a game-changing pep talk that took place on the bench during the third quarter of Game 6.
Denver was down 14 points late in the third when Barton turned to Morris and said, "If you get 20 [points] tonight, we’re going to win this game.” Morris only had seven points at the time. “I just said to him, ‘All right’ and then I knew I just had to keep attacking when I got back in the game.” Morris used the motivation from his teammate to close out the game with an additional 15 points, helping the Nuggets defeat Portland on the road, 126-115.
“I told you! I told you!” Barton told Morris in an embrace after the game.
How Monte Morris is erasing his 2019 postseason
It hasn’t been an easy road for Morris to get to this moment. The former Iowa State point guard was the 51st pick in the 2017 NBA draft and spent the majority of his rookie season playing in the G League for Rio Grande Valley. His sophomore season, he started to get plugged into the Nuggets' rotation as the backup point guard for Murray. Everything came to a halt when the 2019 playoffs hit. Morris became a completely different player from the season and could not hit a 3-point shot to save his life.
“I needed to go through [struggles]. It’s rare for guys to come off two-ways and go through the regular season to have big games in the playoffs,” Morris said. “I had nightmares before every playoff game, my first playoffs.”
Morris went 0-for-13 from 3-point range and logged only two minutes in Game 6 against the Trail Blazers after averaging 24 minutes during the regular season.
“I don’t ever want that feeling again. It was a hard feeling. A hard pill to swallow,” Morris added. “That’s why I bust my ass and work hard every day. That was a tough time for me in my life. I’ve learned from it. I’ve moved on from it, and I was ready for this moment.”
No one imagined it would be Rivers, Campazzo and Morris taking down one of the best backcourts in the NBA in Lillard and McCollum. It’s not getting any easier for the Nuggets as they take on the Phoenix Suns duo of Chris Paul and Devin Booker in the Western Conference semifinals starting Monday night. Morris and Paul have talked regularly over the years ever since Morris was a standout player in high school and attended Paul’s basketball camp in 2013. There will be quick daps before the game, but once both teams hit the floor, it’s all business.
“Just watching those games with L.A., they like to chirp a lot,” Morris added. “We’re not backing down, and I’m the last guy to back down from a little back-and-forth on the court.”
The Suns are top six in the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and these two teams haven’t played one another since Jan. 23. The Nuggets were a completely different team back then. This time around, there will be no Murray serving up 50-point games, but the team has added Aaron Gordon and Rivers, who contributed significantly in the first round against the Trail Blazers. Morris’ confidence is up too after taking on Lillard and McCollum.
“It definitely makes me feel better going into the series and just showed me that I can play and compete at this high-level form of the playoffs,” Morris said. “It’s giving me that drive that I’ve always had. My teammates believe in me to make plays, and I’ll always rise to the occasion no matter what the competition is so I'm looking forward to it.“
The No. 2 seed Suns enter Game 1 as a 5-point favorite over the No. 3 Nuggets, according to BetMGM.
Morris isn’t backing down from the challenge Paul and Booker bring in the backcourt as well as Deandre Ayton in the post.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Morris said. “But we’re not done yet.”
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