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Markieff Morris set the tone for the Wizards in his first NBA playoff game

NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON - All heroes don’t wear capes. And in the case of Markieff Morris, he was labeled a problem.

Exiled from a quagmire of mediocrity in Phoenix, Morris was so bad some were saying it would take a first round pick for the Suns to be able to move a deal that is more than reasonable by today’s salary cap standards.

And why? Because Morris was labeled a cancer in the locker room — whether that is right or wrong is up for debate. But that is the past, and this is the now. And on Sunday, Morris started and performed in his first ever playoff game.

John Wall scored 32 points with 14 assists during Sunday’s contest, but it was really Morris who kicked the Wizards into high gear.

Washington played sluggishly for a majority of the first half. They gave up 22 foul shots and couldn’t buy themselves a bucket. They were playing into the Atlanta Hawks’ hands defensively and with just 32 seconds left in the quarter the Wizards had 42 points.

They needed a spark. A jolt of energy from someone. They were listless and nothing seemed to be working.

Then, in the corner. For three. The last possession of the half. Morris draws a foul on a three point attempt that barely misses the center of the cylinder before falling off the rim.

He goes to the line. Drains one. Drains two. Drains three. A collective sigh of relief flows from around the Verizon Center.

But then, before the two teams go their separate ways at the half, Morris and Paul Millsap get into a verbal spat. What was said?

“Just an exchange of a couple words,” Morris said. “Just setting the’s all part of the game, man.”

It worked. The tone was set for the second half. But Morris wasn’t done. He scored the first five points for Washington in the second half to tie the game back up at 50.

His defense on Millsap kept the Hawks at bay throughout the game. Millsap had 19 points on 8 shots and had 11 free throws, but no bucket was easy. He played the game frustrated. And much of that was due to Morris’ defense.

Despite the team getting to the foul line 11 times himself and his team getting to the line 39 times total, Millsap said the Wizards were playing too physically with the Hawks.

Tensions between the two flared up throughout the game after Morris dove on top of Millsap when fighting for a loose ball. Morris should have been called for a foul on the play, but instead a jump ball was called.

The game was physical both ways and the Hawks benefited from whistles throughout the night. Still, Millsap, who finished the game with just two rebounds, had an issue with the physicality of the game.

“The difference is we were playing basketball and they were playing MMA,” Millsap said.

But to Morris and the Wizards, that does not matter. This is playoff basketball. And in the playoffs, everyone’s nose has to hit the grindstone and it has to hit it hard.

“The ball is like gold now,” Morris said. “Every possession counts, so I’m just going headfirst every play. It is what it is. If we’re going to jostle the whole series, that’s what it’s going to be.”

That’s the cold, hard truth about what the NBA playoffs are. They’re rough. The road is never easy and every opponent is going to compete. And for a player who has never participated in playoff basketball, it sure seems like home to Morris.

Two years ago, Paul Pierce was the vocal leader in Washington. He called game against these same Atlanta Hawks and declared his dominance over the Toronto Raptors.

The team is undoubtedly pushed forward by the dominance of its backcourt, but Morris is not unlike Pierce in that he provides the meat and potatoes that Washington needs to grind games out. That plays out both on and off the court.

“He changed our team a whole lot. He understands that,” Wall said. “He’s one of those guys that bought in. He’s never been to the playoffs before. He shied away from getting a lot of shots at times, but he’s doing everything to help our team win. When he’s playing as well as he did today for us, we’re unstoppable.”