Darius Morris making most of opportunity

The Lakers had numbers and they wanted to push the pace.

So the Lakers guard sped up, kept scanning the open court and then found Dwight Howard behind him. The Lakers center slammed it home.

It’s so easy to envision this sequence unfolding between Steve Nash and Howard, the Lakers’ signature offseason acquisition. But this play actually involved Lakers guard Darius Morris, who posted a career-high 12 points in the Lakers’ 119-108 victory Sunday over the Houston Rockets.

After Howard blocked Cole Aldrich, Morris led the fast-break. A few seconds later, Morris then set up Howard for the powerful dunk.

“I have to reward him,” Morris said afterwards. “He made a great play on defense and then he sprinted really hard. That’s signs of him getting his legs back. He finished it with a nice dunk. It’s good to reward him.”

It’s good the Lakers have rewarded Morris, too.

He’s become the team’s silver lining since the Lakers’ backcourt became depleted with injuries, ranging from Nash (fractured left leg) and Steve Blake (strained abdominal muscle). As a starter in the past three games, Morris has averaged six points and fours assists in 27 minutes. The Lakers have raved about the second-year 6-foot-4 guard for his work ethic, length and athleticism. They’ve also taken a liking to attention on defense.

“He is playing extremely well,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “He is playing with a great deal of maturity on both ends of the floor.”

It remains to be seen that Morris’ emergence will be enough when the Lakers (5-5) host the Brooklyn Nets (6-2) tonight at Staples Center. After all, Deron Williams averages an efficient 18 points and eight assists and masters the pick-and-roll well. But it’s a promising sign for the Lakers’ backcourt. Nash will sit out at least for four more games, including tonight at Brooklyn, at Sacramento on Wednesday, at Memphis on Friday and at Dallas on Saturday. D’Antoni also suggested the same with Blake.

But Morris’ opportunity goes beyond filling in gaps. D’Antoni has suggested he will find minutes for Morris even when Nash and Blake return.

“He can only get better,” D’Antoni said. “We need to slow him down but that will come with time. He can play off of Steve Nash and play a lot of different positions.”

That’s a much better position Morris faced his rookie season. Though Morris started seven games during Blake’s absence from a rib injury, former Coach Mike Brown quickly lost faith in him because he felt Morris’ speed and heavy dribbling prevented the Lakers from playing at a deliberate pace. Morris has since struck a better balance, while D’Antoni suggests he’ll allow him to play through such mistakes.

“Last year I worked out a lot, but these game reps makes it really rapid,” Morris said. “I get to really make reads. You can practice all day, but that game action and learning how to play with your teammates is really valuable.”

That mostly has involved Nash, who has pointed out to Morris various nuances on the pick-and-roll and where to look for cutters. Meanwhile, Morris hardly allowed the Lakers’ depth chart from souring his thirst for work and self-improvement.

“I’m learning so much, but more importantly, I’m trying to show people what I can bring to the table,” Morris said.
“I thank my teammates for giving me that confidence. Most importantly , I thank the coaching staff as well telling me to go out there and play. I’m really just trying to simplify it for me.”


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