As he prepared to start Sunday night's game, Chris Morris came to the press table, shook a load of powder onto his hands and clapped demonstratively, leaving a cloud of powder in Ron Boone's face. It's the way Michael Jordan begins every game, clapping powder all over Bulls broadcasters Johnny Kerr and Wayne Larivee.
Then Morris carried his Jordan imitation to the court.The man who couldn't buy court time two weeks ago was the hero of Game 4, a 101-86 Utah win that left the Jazz ahead of San Antonio three games to one in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals.
Morris kicked Utah to a fast Delta Center start with 13 first-quarter points on the way to a game-high 25 points on 11-for-14 shooting, 3-for-4 on threes. He had five rebounds, three assists, a steal and three blocked shots in 36 minutes. It was his high for points and blocks since he joined the Jazz and one short of his season-high for minutes.
Morris has had his offensive moments with Utah, but nine games into the postseason, he found the key to piling up minutes in Jerry Sloan's system. "Everybody looks at the scoring part of it," says Sloan, "but if they're not defending, how can I keep them on the floor? They've got to be tenacious the whole time."
Sunday Morris broke Sloan's substitution pattern. He played nine minutes of the first quarter as a starter, returned halfway through the second, started the third and played till :23 left, then came back at 7:59 of the fourth quarter and stayed till game's end. "He did because he shot the ball, (and) I thought he got to Sean Elliott fairly quick and tried to keep the ball away from him, and that's all we're asking," said Sloan.
"It's just your work ethic," says Bryon Russell, another who's earned big minutes lately. "If you're lollygagging, he's going to get somebody in there that wants to work hard."
After seven years with New Jersey, it's taken Morris some time to break old shoot-first habits, but playing this late into the postseason for the first time is a powerful reward for one reinventing his game. He spoke several times Sunday about how his aggressive defense on Elliott stoked his own scoring.
"After I started doing things on the defensive end, that's what gets you going," Morris said, adding that he'd have never said such a thing last year as a Net.
"Jerry gets on my butt all the time," Morris said, "but that's good. I think he's trying to get something out of me, and I'm definitely trying to improve."
Owner Larry Miller guesses that playing with the Nets so long may have taught Morris to look out for himself and made it hard for him to think Jazz ways could benefit him. "It's like he finally let go and believed," Miller said. If it continues, "it's a whole new dimension for us."
Oh, and if you saw Sunday's game in which Morris often came upcourt pumping an arm, or even both arms, skyward as though he were practicing the motion for a shot - that's a new Jazz signal that means "push the score up," says Morris, who did.