WHEN Chris Morris stepped onto the court for practice Wednesday afternoon, he was innundated by reporters, not to mention cameras, pens, tape recorders and, naturally, questions. Questions about his productive game Tuesday night. Questions about his impressive defense. And, naturally, questions about the Jazz's chances this year in the playoffs.
Interviews are nothing new to Morris. Having spent seven years in New Jersey, he's seen more microphones than Frank Sinatra. But not under the same circumstances. And not answering the same questions.The Jazz enter Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinal series with the Spurs in an unexpected position - leading the series. Which wasn't supposed to happen. Working on just one day's rest, the Jazz were supposed to come into Tuesday night's game looking like they'd spent a week in the sauna. They were supposed to be tired and drained and generally not ready to go on to the next round. Instead, they jumped to an 18-point lead in the first quarter on their way to a 95-75 win over San Antonio.Spurs fans and media reacted like someone had set fire to the Alamo. There was shock and disbelief all around. Most of the questioning in Wednesday's interview session was centered around how the Spurs could have let it happen.
In large part, the Jazz win was due to an unexpectedly strong performance from Morris, who can be as unpredictable as a rattlesnake. When he plays well, the Jazz are coming from every direction. When he doesn't, you have to wonder if he's ever going to get seven years in a dog pound called New Jersey out of his system.
"Chris can explode for 27 at any time," said Spurs' guard Avery Johnson. "He's one of those hot and cold guys. He can go off at any time. We just hope we can catch him on one of those 1-for-15 nights."
It isn't like Morris hasn't had his share of bad nights since moving to Utah. Through the first four games of the first round of the playoffs, he looked like he'd overdosed on Sominex. In Game 1 he played only five minutes, which was enough to convince Jazz coach Jerry Sloan that Morris wasn't going to be a factor. He ended up missing all four shots he took.
Games 2, 3 and 4 were more of the same. He was 1-2 from the field in five minutes in Game 2, followed by a 0-for-2 night in four minutes in Game 3. Game 4 was another 0-for-4 night. Morris' shots were hitting the glass like they'd been launched from a bazooka. However, he did produce six rebounds, which accounted for his 15 minutes of playing time.
But in the last two games Morris has been reminding the Jazz why they signed him as a free agent over the summer. In Game 5 against the Blazers he made two consecutive 3-pointers to ignite a 38-point win. He also had five rebounds and eight points in 19 minutes.
Tuesday was Morris' best performance yet. He logged 22 minutes, making six of 11 shots, including a 3-pointer, for 13 points. More significantly, he held the Spurs' All-Star forward Sean Elliott to 14 points and just two field goals.
Consequently, these days the Jazz are feeling as confident as car salesmen. They're ready to take on all comers. When their usual stars - John Stockton, Karl Malone, Jeff Hornacek - are rolling, they're dangerous. When Morris is playing well, they're bulletproof.
"When Morris and (David) Benoit and (Bryon) Russell are making shots, well, that's what that team has needed for a long time is to have another consistent scorer," said Spurs coach Bob Hill.
Predictably, Morris isn't anxious to label himself as the key factor in the Jazz's playoff hopes. After a seven-year internship under the original malcontent himself, Derrick Coleman, he may not be sure exactly what he can do. It's like taking music lessons from Kathy Lee Gifford. It takes time to get rid of old habits. While he was with the Nets, Morris missed practices, asked to be traded and showed all the enthusiasm of a sleeping cat.
But when he came to Utah, he insisted he always wanted to play; that being with a contender was the jump-start he needed. "I'm glad I'm here," he said. "If I was still in New Jersey, I could be looking at the playoffs from, well, anybody's home."
So as the playoffs roll along, the Jazz continue to hold their breath, hoping Morris will keep getting better. Hoping that his productive nights will stop coming in spurts and start coming in waves. And hoping that once this is all over, they won't have to explain why they signed him in the first place.