Markieff Morris isn’t a headline player for the Lakers. In fact, on a roster filled with notable NBA names, he often isn’t even a subhead. While playing just 15.9 minutes per game this season — the fewest of any rotation player — it isn’t surprising that he doesn’t talk to the media a lot.
But when Morris does speak, he’s one of the most candid players on the team. And after he took Kyle Kuzma’s place in the starting lineup as the Lakers continue to look for answers without Anthony Davis, Morris was one of the players chosen to speak for the Lakers following their fourth loss in a row. And as is usual for the man affectionately referred to as simply “Keef” by his teammates, he kept things real about how hard this season has been.
“It’s tough man, it’s just different. Mentally you don’t really get a chance to roll over,” Morris said. “We’re playing every other day, and some days that we’re not playing, we’re flying.
“But that’s still no excuse because everybody in the league is dealing with the same thing,” Morris continued. “We had a shorter offseason, but it’s mental with us right now. It shouldn’t be easy, because we need stuff like this just to level us off, to know what our weaknesses are and work on our weaknesses. You never win without having these types of moments.”
These moments weren’t exactly expected during a season when the defending champs were almost universally considered the title favorites heading into the year, but without Davis and Dennis Schröder, the Lakers have had some flaws exposed. They have less margin for error, and Morris feels that’s the main difference between now and the start of the year.
“We still have the two best players in the world so it basically came a lot easier for us,” Morris said of the Lakers’ success before injuries and fatigue took their toll. “Now we really have to think the game more so than just play. I think early on we won with talent a lot and we had a lot of role players that know their roles, to now with those guys out, with AD out in particular, we need guys to do different things.”
Still, he’s trying to keep the right perspective.
“We’ve played four games. It’s not going to happen overnight. This is almost a completely different team from last year. If it was the same team, then guys would know what to do when certain guys are out, but we had one week of training camp, a couple preseason games and then went right to it,” Morris said. “This is new for all of us, but we need it. If you ask me, we need it. Because you never know with injuries, you never know in the playoffs, you never know. We need these challenging times to find who we really are.”
But the fatigue isn’t just physical for the Lakers, either. The quick turnaround has been mentally exhausting, too. Morris has resorted to meditation to try and calm his mind and stay in the moment, and while LeBron James has constantly insisted that he isn’t tired, it’s clear that not every member of the team feels the same way.
“It’s just trying to stay professional, man. There’s not too much you can even do,” Morris said. “The games are coming back to back. You’ve got to kind of trick yourself into not being sore or not being tired.”
Morris, a veteran with nearly a decade of time in the NBA, says that the combination of this condensed season coming on the heels of a 72-day turnaround after winning the title is “the most basketball that I’ve ever played in my life,” and it won’t get easier for the Lakers. They have eight back-to-backs crammed into their final 35 games despite not having a single cancellation (so far) during their first 37, and at least 16 of those matchups will come on national TV, making it harder for the team to rest players without a real injury.
“It’s an unbelievable amount of basketball that we all are playing. Mentally it gets draining, especially when you lose,” Morris said. “But like I said before: We need this. This is a mental test for all of us to see where we’re at without our best players, and we’ve just got to work from there.”
In Morris’ mind, exhausting as this has all been, it can only help the Lakers prepare for the crucible of the postseason. It’s going to be a trudge over their final three games before the All-Star break, but their regular season record (22-11) and current seeding (third in the West) aren’t what’s most important to this team. A loss to the Utah Jazz, even an embarrassing, 114-89 blowout, is not what they’re going to judge themselves on. They have a larger picture in mind.
“Our whole preparation is preparing for the playoffs. We see the Jazz, we know they beat our ass tonight, but in the playoffs it’s a different story,” Morris said. “We’re in a situation right now where it’s new to all of us. So it’s not supposed to click right away. It’s supposed to take time. It’s supposed to challenge us. It’s supposed to feel like our back is against the wall.
“Everybody needs that to bring out your true self,” Morris continued. “You’ve got to fight when your back is against the wall. When you’ve lost a couple games, it will bring out your true self.”
The Lakers will have to hope Morris is right, because the alternative is that losing these games revealed who they truly are.