Monte Morris’ relationship with Chris Paul helped Nuggets beat Thunder
To keen basketball observers, Nuggets point guard Monte Morris’ clinical takedown of the Oklahoma City Thunder should’ve looked familiar.
Between the shrewd halftime adjustments and the savvy dissection of the Thunder’s defensive approach, you could almost see Morris’ wheels turning in real time. Amid the Nuggets’ riveting 121-113 overtime win over the Thunder on Monday, there was an intense chess match being played between Morris and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul. To win, Morris had to outsmart a legend.
“I go to his camp every year, trying to learn from him in the pick-and-roll, things he was doing out there,” Morris said, after playing 39 minutes and dropping 17 points, all in the second half. “It was tough to cover. I know it’s kind of unguardable the way he plays the pick-and-roll. … So, me going to his camps definitely makes me comfortable when I’m going up against him. I get to learn a lot from a future Hall of Famer, so every time I play him it’s just fun.”
When Morris unearthed three midrange jumpers over the third and fourth quarters, it was impossible not to think of Paul, who’s made an art of living in between the 3-point line and the paint. And when Morris sunk an elbow jumper to cut the Thunder’s lead to one with 5:15 left in the fourth quarter, it was vintage Paul. Morris’ hesitation even tripped Paul up, not unlike the hundreds of defenders Paul has toyed with throughout his career.
Though Morris’ heady play was essential with Jamal Murray (hamstring) out, the Thunder’s three-pronged backcourt initially had him bewildered. In the first half, where Morris was held scoreless, Oklahoma City threw all number of looks at him.
“I was just reading how OKC was playing me,” Morris said. “Sometimes with (Steven) Adams, they were in the drop (coverage), sometimes they were up with Nerlens (Noel), and then they were switching CP on me, (Luguentz) Dort, Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) and I knew I was able, second half, just scouting what they were doing to me in the first half to come out and be aggressive. I don’t really trip on my missed shots.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone thought Morris looked “tentative” in the first half. And then the adjustments came.
“I thought second half and overtime, he was just outstanding,” Malone said. “Him and Nikola (Jokic) in pick-and-roll, coming off, making the right reads. … As a point guard, you have to set the tone, you have to be aggressive, you have to keep the defense honest. And I thought he did that. They were overplaying Nikola so much that Monte found avenues to get to the basket.”
Down 106-105 with :28 seconds left, Morris came off a high screen with Jokic, took two dribbles left, paused, and then barreled, untouched, through the teeth of the Thunder defense. Again, the hesitation was a distinct Paul staple. But according to Malone, Morris’ most heady sequence came off a blown up play with the game in the balance.
Trailing 108-107, the Nuggets tried to feed sizzling rookie Michael Porter Jr. the ball, but the Thunder easily snuffed that option out. Jokic waved everyone to the corner and called for the game’s most reliable action: a pick-and-roll with Morris. Playing the two-man game, Jokic found a crease and whipped a pass directly into Morris’ backcut. Morris was fouled on the way to the hoop, giving him a chance to sink the game-winning free throws.
There was just one thing preventing Morris from capping off a fantastic second half.
“(Paul) tapped me on my butt, talking about ‘We just need one (miss), ‘Te, we just need one,’ when I was at the line,” Morris said. “Just trying to get in my head.”
Morris buried them both. On the ensuing play, Paul was actually the one who missed a free throw with a chance to seal the game. Had he made it, the game may not have gone to overtime, where the Nuggets rode Jokic to a much-needed win.
“I know at the end of the day, it’s all love,” Morris said of his friendship with Paul. “I’ll probably text him, or he’ll probably text me after the game, say ‘Good game.’ It was good going up against him and seeing where I stack up.”
Orange County Register reporter Kyle Goon contributed to this report.