When evenly matched teams meet in the playoffs, series can swing on something as small as a missed rotation, a lucky bounce or a turned ankle. In the case of the Washington Wizards' second-round series against the top-seeded Boston Celtics, the belongs to Markieff Morris.
In the second quarter of the series opener on Sunday, Morris took a midrange jumper with Al Horford contesting the shot. The Celtics big man did not give him enough space to land, so Morris' left foot came down on Horford's left foot and turned sideways. Morris crumpled to the floor, clutched at his ankle and that was the end of his afternoon.
Now, after their 123-111 Game 1 loss, the Wizards have to hope that the injury isn't serious. Coach Scott Brooks said he watched the video and "didn't look good," but said he didn't have an update but they just have to "figure out a way to compete" without him. Morris himself insisted he will play in Game 2, per ESPN's Jeff Goodman, but if he is limited or out of the lineup going forward, their challenge will be even tougher than anticipated.
By most statistical measures, Morris is an average starting power forward. He averaged 14 points and 6.5 rebounds in the regular season, shooting 45.7 percent and 36.2 percent from 3-point range. He's a stretch 4 but he's not a knockdown shooter. He brings toughness but he lacks the size to defend the league's most physically imposing bigs. He is a versatile defender, but not necessarily a stopper. His specific package of skills, however, is integral because it holds Washington's starting lineup together.
In the regular season, the Wizards' starting five of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Morris and Marcin Gortat outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions. In the first round, it dominated the Atlanta Hawks, outscoring them by 15.2 points per 100 possessions. Morris is a crucial part of that because of his ability to defend most 4s, switch onto wings and make life easier for Wall and Beal on offense. The threat of his outside shot gives them more space, and the threat of him posting up keeps opponents from hiding small guards on him in order to defend Wall and Beal with bigger players.
"He's a matchup problem," Brooks said. "He can score inside. He can score outside. He puts the ball on the floor. He gets six or seven or eight rebounds per game, but he blocks out. He knows how to play. He's a smart basketball player. We definitely missed him, but like I will tell our guys, there's no excuse. We just got beat."
His absence was particularly problematic because Washington doesn't have much depth. The Hawks frequently went on runs when both teams had their second units on the court, and that trend continued against Boston. Kelly Oubre, who picked up some of Morris' minutes and started the second half, was minus-22 in 26 minutes. Bojan Bogdanovic was minus-15 in 19 minutes. Washington's only other real stretch 4 is Otto Porter, who starts at small forward, unless you count Jason Smith, who has been playing backup center with Ian Mahinmi injured.
Heading into the series, the disparity between these teams in that department was already a storyline. The Celtics are one of the deeper teams in the league, with a bunch of bench players who can either space the floor, defend multiple positions or both. Reserves Jonas Jerebko, Amir Johnson and Jaylen Brown played a total of 21 minutes for Boston, and the Wizards would surely kill to have any one of them in its rotation.
Without Morris, the Celtics could hide star guard Isaiah Thomas on Oubre defensively. Without Morris, Washington's rebounding advantage completely disappeared. Without Morris, the Wizards were largely unable to close out to Boston's shooters on the perimeter. Brooks' most versatile lineup features Morris playing center, but that option was not available.
In a way, this is similar to the Rajon Rondo situation in the Celtics' first playoff series. Morris is not a star, but his injury took away some of Washington's advantages and accentuated some of Boston's. The Wizards do not have much room for error in this series, and they will be in an awfully tough spot if they don't get him back at full strength.