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Suns Strokes: Markieff Morris shines as Earl Watson’s No. 1 option, but Raptors win

Phoenix Suns' Markieff Morris drives past Toronto Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas, of Lithuania, (17) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — It spoils the narrative to point out how Markieff Morris scored a season-high 30 points on the day interim head coach Earl Watson made his debut as the Phoenix Suns’ interim coach.

It may have been more coincidental than cause and effect in the Suns’ 104-97 loss to the Toronto Raptors. That’s because Morris’ performance — which also included 11 rebounds, six assists and two blocks — came against a Toronto Raptors team ill fit to defend him.

Nonetheless, Morris looked more assertive and more sure of himself Tuesday night in a more defined role.

And if you’re to believe he’s found new life in a season where Morris has been criticized by Suns fans following a trade demand, well, then there’s evidence to suggest it was more than matchup problems on the Raptors’ end.

Watson declared Morris the Suns’ clear No. 1 option with Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe out with injuries.

“I went to every player and gave them their role and that was his role – to lead us,” Watson said after his first game taking over for head coach Jeff Hornacek. “I know it’s a tough situation for him but as a coach, the leader of the team, the teacher of the team, I love him. We help him grow while he’s here, no matter what. It’s bigger than basketball for me.”

Morris received plenty of looks in the high- and low-posts, hitting 13-of-20 shots in 42 minutes.

Veteran Toronto forward Luis Scola and 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas struggled to stay in front of him all night long, finishing with minus-8 and minus-10 plus-minus ratings, respectively.

Schematically, it made sense. Watson’s motivation of making sure Morris knew he wasn’t being left behind in a tulmultuous season may have worked, too.

“He definitely emphasized how important I am to the team,” Morris said. “That’s special to me for a coach to take over and give me exactly what you’re going to do, what you need to do. I think I heard about 20 times today how much faith he had in me.”

Morris wasn’t the only Sun who appeared to respond well to the coaching change.

Archie Goodwin recorded a double-double with 18 points and 12 assists, and rookie Devin Booker, decidedly the second option on the team, scored 27 points while hitting 6-of-14 three-point attempts.

“Took some big shots, took some questionable shots,” Watson said of Booker. “He has a chance to be a superstar in this league and one of the best two-guards to play the game. It’s an important year for him to see Kobe going through retirement.”

HE SAID IT

“Jeff was my guy. Me and him were here three years together. He was a great coach and I really liked him a whole lot. That’s just the way it goes and we’re definitely going to miss him.” – Markieff Morris on Jeff Hornacek’s firing

THE GOOD

Phoenix opened on a 7-0 run looking toward sets that got Morris, Booker and then P.J. Tucker comfortable looks. Phoenix shot 57 percent in the first quarter and held Toronto to 47 percent.

Booker and Goodwin finally got loose for consecutive buckets to cut the Raptors’ double-digit lead to 46-39 with 3:33 to play in the first half, and solid ball movement then led to Morris and Tucker baskets for an 8-0 Suns run. That was just one example that Phoenix never let Toronto’s lead snowball on them despite trailing by as many as 14.

THE BAD

The Raptors opened on a 14-2 run through the first six minutes of the second quarter by focusing their defensive efforts on the young Suns backcourt. Booker, who hit the second Suns’ attempt of the game, didn’t take his second shot until he got to the 6:45 mark of the second. He missed a three then but a minute later got to the foul stripe on a drive to break Toronto’s run. The Suns were outscored 24-13 in the quarter.

Toronto was the league’s hottest team having ripped off 11 straight wins before the streak ended Monday night in Denver. But Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Co-Eastern Conference Players of the Month, finished with a combined 48 points and hit six threes.

As has been the trend, Phoenix turned the ball over. Tonight it was 17 times leading to 22 points.

STAT OF THE GAME

12: The total bench points Phoenix produced with a shortened rotation that didn’t produce enough points nor with enough tenacity on defense to warrant more playing time.

NOTED

– After the game, the Suns announced forward T.J. Warren would require surgery on a broken foot that will sideline him for the rest of the 2015-16 season.

– Watson earned his first technical as a coach with 32 seconds left in the third quarter. Phoenix trailed 75-70 when a shooting foul by P.J. Tucker appeared to be goal-tended by Toronto but went uncalled.

– For the first time since their last win on Jan. 24 against the Hawks, Phoenix held a team below 30 points in all four quarters.

UP NEXT

Phoenix continues its five-game homestand leading into the All-Star break Thursday against the Houston Rockets, who should have a rested Dwight Howard after the center sat out a Tuesday win against the Heat.

Howard earned a one-game suspension after making contact with an official the game prior, which was a third-straight loss for the Rockets.

Houston’s frontcourt is reeling from injuries with Donatas Motiejunas, Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell out Tuesday with injuries. Recently-acquired small forward Josh Smith started that game at center, meaning Phoenix could see a good deal of small ball with the exception of Howard.

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