Markieff Morris is slipping out of the Suns’ rotation

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Markieff Morris, a rookie forward the Suns selected with the 13th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, began the season with a level of competence that was above expectations. But as this lockout-shortened season has worn on, while the Suns have finally started to find themselves by winning seven of their last nine games, Morris has faded. And he may soon find himself out of the team’s regular rotation because of it.

Morris’ production level has gone from acceptable to great, average to dismal. As this Suns team has locked in recently, giving maximum effort to claw back from double-digit deficits in five straight home victories, Morris hasn’t been able to keep up — which has the team’s head coach, Alvin Gentry, ready to move on to other players if things don’t change.

Hakim Warrick provided a spark from the end of the bench in a win over the Mavericks on Thursday, so it was only natural to ask Gentry if Hak would once again get the call against the Grizzlies on Saturday. Gentry said they’d still like to stick with the rookie, but only if it’s warranted based on the results he can provide when he’s out there.

“I still think that we’ll try Markieff,” Gentry said. “But the one thing that I talked to him about today is that you have to produce. As a bench player, that’s what it’s all about is production. You get an opportunity — and I’m not really talking about making shots, or whatever — but there’s things that you can do to always help the team. I used Channing Frye (as an example), I mean last week Channing was 2-for-18 (in the win over the Clippers) but he played 30-something minutes because of his defense, and rebounding, and things like that.

“It’s not always about making shots, but you’ve got to have production when you’re out there, and if you’re not producing then you have to go somewhere else (as a coach). Because ultimately I’m responsible for the production of guys, and if you’re not producing, then I’ve got to look elsewhere.”

In six games this month — five of which were Suns victories — Morris is shooting a combined 3-for-25 from the field, while collecting just 14 rebounds in total. His minutes have dipped significantly the past two games, and in the win over the Grizzlies on Saturday, Morris logged just three minutes, but still managed to pick up two personal fouls and miss three field goal attempts during that very brief amount of time, while getting screamed at almost the length of the court by Gentry for being completely out of position defensively.

Gentry has shown a fearlessness this season when it comes to his rotations; he messed with the starting lineup on a road trip earlier in the year, and the bench minutes have seemingly changed on a game-to-game basis, depending on who’s bringing the results on any given night. So if Phoenix continues to respond with wins, and is able to make a push towards the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture, Morris may find himself learning from the bench, rather than the floor.

Whatever the result, there are no hard feelings on Gentry’s part, and he seems to be wide open with Morris — both in terms of his communication, as well as what the expectations are. Essentially, as long as the Suns have a shot at the postseason — distant as it still may be — Morris will need to produce if he wants to see the court.  What’s clear now is that he won’t be given additional minutes this season simply for player development purposes.

“He’s a good kid, but he understands that (with hitting the) rookie wall or whatever you want to call it, you’ve still got to have energy when you go out there,” Gentry said. “I still believe in him, and I think he’s going to be a very good player. There’s growing pains involved in whatever you do, but I think the energy thing is key.”

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.