Coming into Friday night's Detroit Piston game the Oklahoma City Thunder have won three games in a row. Somewhat lost in the collective sighs of relief following Kevin Durant's return and the team's current success is Anthony Morrow's shooting resurgence. In fact, early results show that to continue winning games, with or without Kevin Durant, the Thunder need the man play-by-play announcer Brian Davis calls 'The Fastest Gun in the West' to stay on target.
The Thunder's frustrating 7 and 6 start and Morrow's shooting struggles are closely linked. In games in which AMo hit at least 40% of his 3 point attempts the Thunder were unbeaten at 4 and 0. In games he shot below 40% or did not play the Thunder finished a lottery level 3 and 6. Even more telling were the results from the six games Durant missed while nursing a strained hamstring. In those contests the Thunder went 3 and 3. Three wins, including a huge home victory over a hot Dallas Mavericks squad, when Morrow broke the 40% mark, and three losses when he fell short.
The Thunder are 7 and 0 when the seventh year pro out of Georgia Tech is hot, but only 3 and 6 when he is not. In the last three games, all Thunder wins, Morrow is knocking the bottom out of the net at an eye-popping 59% and is getting more and more comfortable with Billy Donovan's new system each time he steps on the floor.
Thunder wins coupled with Morrow's offense success may not surprise some, but a few facts about what he does on the other end should raise some eyebrows.
While it is true that Morrow's defensive skills will never be confused with those of Andre Roberson, his efforts to improve since joining the Thunder in July, 2014 are beginning to produce results. Morrow's struggles in isolation and closing out on spot-up shooters in the past are well documented but CBS Sports Matt Moore points out in a March 16, 2015 article that Morrow's offensive prowess is not negated by his defense:
With the additions of Kyle Singler and Dion Waiters, coach Scott Brooks has gone to a platoon approach. He has played Dion Waiters significant minutes, presumably because of his defensive value over Morrow.
The problem is that isn't how things are working out.
With Morrow on the floor since Durant went down, the Thunder are 12.2 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent with Morrow on the floor, and 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse than their opponent with him off. So overall, Morrow makes for a difference of 20.4 points per 100 possessions. If you're wondering, that's a huge amount....
Moore goes on to add:
In many cases, Brooks has opted to play Dion Waiters at the two-guard spot over Morrow, with the idea that Waiters' defense is key to keeping the Thunder in games. The problem is that though Morrow certainly does have defensive liabilities, the defense is actually worse by about two points per 100 possessions with Waiters on the floor vs. Morrow. Interestingly, when both are on the floor is when the defense shines, holding opponents to a 101.4 defensive efficiency, as opposed to 104.0 when Waiters is on and Morrow sits.
Morrow's spacing even helps Waiters, who has been terrible at shooting this season. Waiter shoots 43 percent with Morrow on, just 34.7 percent when Morrow's off the floor. I'm hammering this dead horse here to point out the obvious-- Morrow's presence has correlated with better performance from Westbrook, Waiters, and defensive stalwart Andre Roberson (in limited minutes)...
a very telling paragraph from Moore's piece:
In a weird twist that needs a lot of context we don't have time here to explain, since Durant went down, the Thunder have defended better with Morrow on the floor (97 points per 100 possessions allowed) vs. when Westbrook and Morrow share the floor (the 109 mark mentioned previously). A lot of that has to do with situation and opponent. But it is interesting and it lends further proof to the fact that Morrow simply does not reflect as a poor defender. Synergy Sports lists him in the 29th percentile in guarding spot-up shooters, and the 27th percentile in guarding out of the pick and roll, but every where else, he's solid to good.
What is his secret? Simple, it starts by playing smart, disciplined defense and communicating with his teammates.... and he has sneaky-quick mitts.
Morrow is not the fastest man on the court nor does he have the quickest feet, but he has recorded 4 steals in the Thunder's last three games while committing only 1 foul. In contrast, Russell Westbrook has nabbed 11 steals, but committed 5 fouls in the process. At that rate Anthony would have snatched 20 steals to Westbrook's eleven. Opponents may get past Morrow on the perimeter but they give his 6'10" wingspan and lightning-fast hands a wide berth.
Additionally, Morrow does not take unnecessary risks. He knows his job and consistently works within the framework of the defense and talks almost non-stop. This makes his teammates job easier because they know what to expect.
The last ingredient to the Morrow defense mystery is Morrow himself. He is relentlessly tenacious. Whether it be on or off the court.... the man refuses to quit working on his game.... ever. ESPN's Rich Bucher wrote this about Morrow in an August, 2010 article:
That work ethic actually may have been a reason he [Morrow] went undrafted. He sustained a stress fracture in his lower back while working out before his junior year at Georgia Tech. He still tried to sneak into the gym to shoot until the coaching staff threatened to make the whole team run at 6 a.m. if he didn't stop until he was cleared to play. He got the green light the first day of the season, which meant months of catching up, conditioning-wise.
Morrow said that making defense a priority was a first for him last season. During his exit interview Morrow added that conditioning and coming into camp in "tip-top" shape was a big part of his summer regimen and Fox's Leslie McCaslin reported during the Dallas Mavericks game that Morrow wanted to emulate the constant motion of players he watched on film because he felt it would help him in the Billy Donovan's new offense. Coaching legend Eddie Sutton always said defense is played with the feet and as it turns out Morrow's added conditioning is paying off on both ends.
One play in particular stood out just twenty-one seconds after McCaslin's comment when Morrow found himself isolated against Deron Williams on the right side with no one behind him. In the past opponents have simply blown past him for the easy lay-up but he took a good defensive position, matched Williams step for step, contested the shot, and forced a miss without fouling.
Coach Sutton himself couldn't have drawn it up better.
When you consider it took his college coach's connections just to get a tryout for the Miami Heat's summer league team in 2008, it is ironic that the future success of an elite team like the Thunder depends so heavily on Anthony Morrow today, but such is the case and based on the number of minutes Billy Donovan has played the Thunder's hired gun the last six games, I'm not the only one that knows it.
Morrow's ability to spread the floor is invaluable. When his shots are falling the Thunder are raking in the wins and even though his defense may not always pass the eye test, he is making it work for the Thunder on the only stat sheet that truly matters.... the scoreboard.