With the Phoenix Suns all the way out of the playoff picture, all that mattered in Friday night's game was the return of Markieff Morris with the Washington Wizards.
Loyal Suns fans greeted him with consistent boos, heard mostly by the player during introductions and free throw attempts. And the Suns fans let him have it. While the crescendo of boos probably didn't rank as high as an opposing college town or high school - "I've been booed a hundred, thousand times way worse than that," Morris said afterward - it was a good showing for Suns fans who usually just let the game come to them.
Morris, for his part, spent most of his pre-game and post-game time roaming the halls of the arena, hugging and chatting up Suns staffers, coaches, equipment folks and anyone else on the Suns payroll. He was greeted with warm wishes, big smiles and long conversations.
Equipment manager Jay Gaspar had some fun with Keef for April Fools.
Clearly, Markieff Morris had friends on the Suns and was well-respected. His beef with the front office, fans, media and others outside the day-to-day circle of trust was where Keef struggled.
On a personal level, Keef passed me in the hallway during pregame on his way to the Suns weight room. We made eye contact. We shared head nods. He might have squinted and smirked. I might have squinted and smirked back. But it wasn't media time, and I'm not one to try to force my way into anyone's world. The moment was over before it started.
"I had a lot of fun with those guys," he said after the game, probably talking about me. "I miss those guys a lot."
The Suns came out strong and were led by their veterans in an attempt to put a spoiler on the Wizards playoff hopes. You have to respect that guys like Ronnie Price, P.J. Tucker and Mirza Teletovic have not already checked out for the summer with only a half dozen games left.
The Suns led all the way into the fourth quarter, but then the Wizards turned up the intensity of their defense and forced the Suns into a series of turnovers and missed shots to take control.
Price missed all but one shot, but he had 8 assists, 4 rebounds and a steal against only two turnovers.
"Ronnie's original role was spot minutes," Watson said. "He understands that. And to be the only point guard left on the roster, he gives his heart every time."
The Suns got double-doubles from three different veterans in Tyson Chandler, Teletovic and Tucker. They played a lot of minutes because Alex Len got himself into immediate foul trouble that impacted his whole game, and Jon Leuer was out with a sprained ankle.
"They were killing us on the boards all night," John Wall said.
"They had 27 second chance points," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said afterward. "Our initial defense was pretty solid; we just couldn't, in that first half, close the deal on defensive rebounds. We allowed 17 offensive rebounds."
On the night, the Suns outrebounded the Wizards 56-44 but most of that discrepancy was in the first half as the Suns used supreme hustle to take a halftime lead.
The second unit really shined in the game until that bad fourth quarter stretch. They scored 23 first half points to give the Suns a good second-quarter lead.
"John Jenkins played well, Archie gave us great minutes, and Chase hit 2 big, big shots," Watson said. "We want our second unit to continue to give us effort and energy, change the game, be game changers."
In the end, it wasn't enough and the undertalented Suns fell victim to the Wizards and John Wall who nearly had a triple double with 22 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds.
"You analyze the game and our team gave the best effort they could," Watson said.
Ronnie Price was a catalyst all game. He was frustrated with the 4th quarter collapse.
"I think we had seven turnovers in the fourth quarter," he said. "So the last five or six minutes of the game when it's winning time, we got to get shots at the rim and giving them extra possessions. Without us getting any attempts at the rim, that's not going to cut it."
Price discounted the injury issues, saying that by this time of the season they've all played together in different lineups and should be familiar enough to execute plays.
"We got a little quick with our decisions," Price said. "And we kind of got out of rhythm and out of flow."
Booker and Len
It was not a good night for the Suns' youngest, healthy players (nod to T.J. Warren). Devin Booker and Alex Len combined to go 7 for 32 for a 17.5% field goal percentage. Len was 1-10 and Booker was 6-22. Ouch.
For as big as he is, Alex Len plays small sometimes. He doesn't jam the ball with authority when he's near the rim, and on post-ups he doesn't have good balance when catching the ball. And he still needs to gain strength. Once, he tried to drive into Nene and was stopped like Nene was made of concrete. I just wish he could be hypnotized into clearing his head of all the voices and instructions, and just playing instinctually.
While Len's problem was mostly in his head, Booker's problem was a combination of missing open shots (dead legs?) and being dogged by the Wizards best defenders. Bradley Beal stayed glued to him most of the game, and then John Wall took over in the fourth. Wall's defense on Booker reminded me of Chris Paul's antics - be physical and swipe strong at the ball no matter what body part you hit. At all times, the Wizards rotated a second defender onto Booker whenever he touched the ball and Wall and Beal did a good job blowing up the Suns weak screens without switching every time.
"We focused in on Booker," Wall said.
Booker took it in stride.
"It's frustrating at times because you don't get the looks that you want and you have to focus in a lot more," he said. "That's what I didn't do tonight, so we had a couple tough turnovers. I wasn't handling the ball well, so just stuff that I'm going to learn from."
Morris played his usual game, and made more shots than he's made since joining the Wizards. After averaging only 11 points and 5 rebounds since joining the team in February, Morris posted 21 points (8-15 FGs, 2-5 on threes) and 9 rebounds against the Suns.
"He's a quiet kid," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "But yea, I think I could see a little pep to his step this morning at shoot around."
Markieff doesn't have the same vitriol for the Suns as his brother, Marcus. Here's most of his post game quotes.
"It is what it is," he said of the booing. "They booed my brother so I figured they'd boo me too. You could see how I played, it didn't affect me. I've been booed a hundred thousand times, way worse than that. It doesn't affect me.
"Honestly, I was trying to win a game. It wasn't about my performance but of course I wanted to play well. It was all about the win and we got the win so, I didn't hear much of the boos. I was just trying to get a win. It definitely was fun. I had a lot of fun with those guys. I miss those guys a lot and I'm just excited for the win and we go on to the next game."
Here's the interview. Hope you can hear him.
The Wizards are 2.5 games out of playoff position with 6 to play. They have two more games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, but the other four games are against playoff teams pushing for their own seeding (Clippers, Pistons, Hornets and Hawks).
The Suns are likely to get either the 12th or 13th pick in the draft thanks to the Morris trade.
The Suns, meanwhile, are clinging tight to their tenuous hold on the league's third worst record. The Nets are only one win behind them in the standings. Now that the Suns have (likely) shelved Brandon Knight for the year, it appears the Suns and Nets will go down to the wire on this little race.