WASHINGTON - Their knowledge is collective. What one twin knows, the other learns. Marcus and Markieff Morris make sure of it, even 559 miles apart. That's the distance between their NBA arenas, and over that divide they prove it is possible for two men to play with a merged consciousness. They were close when they pulled their mattresses together in the basement of their grandmother's place in Hunting Park, after the fire forced the teenagers out of their North Philadelphia home. They are as close now.
This week, the 27-year-old twins were together, staying at Markieff's home in Virginia, since Markieff's Washington Wizards are in the playoffs and Marcus and the Detroit Pistons just missed. Which meant Marcus showed up for Game 1 of Wizards vs. the Atlanta Hawks wearing one of his brother's game jerseys. Two identical No. 5s on the court and in the front row. Wizards fans loved it. Nice jersey . . . come play here.
In the current hierarchy of Philly hoops, you'd have to put Kyle Lowry on top, all-star and Olympic gold medalist. The twins, drafted in consecutive picks, 13th and 14th in 2011, occupy the next step, together. They go for respect over celebrity, but within their game they're already on a list of best brothers to ever play it. Best twins? A real short list.
As Markieff got ready to leave for Game 2 of the first round against the Hawks, Marcus sat at his brother's kitchen table and talked of their upbringing shaping them and talked of their journey to their current status, a place of respect in the NBA. Starters with increasing leadership roles and heavy defensive responsibilities and remarkably similar statistics.
Marcus spoke of his belief that merging their basketball brains creates an advantage shared by nobody else in the NBA.
"At halftime, I'll give him stuff that I see. I'll text him," Marcus said. "I know he's going to look at his phone. Even some plays. This is open. Look for that."
Texts flow the other way, too, to Detroit.
"He'll say, 'The pace is good. Keep shooting' or 'Slow down a little bit. See the game through,' " Marcus said.
Even in these playoffs, Marcus will offer in-game thoughts, remembering that he told Markieff during Game 1 to switch his pace up, give the Hawks different looks, take his time on the face-up. That if he wins his matchup the Wizards should win the series.
"We always can see things," Marcus said, going back to their time together at Prep Charter and Kansas, even with the Phoenix Suns. "That's why I think we always were a team within a team. When you have two guys who are on the same page with everything, it makes three guys on the court adapt to that."
Laughs all around
One Wizards staffer to another: "They want Keef."
This was at the end of Wednesday's morning shootaround before Game 2. Plenty of cameras and tape recorders were at the Verizon Center. Morris was their primary request after he had put up 21 points, seven rebounds, four blocks, and had created a little storyline, a sub-plot out of Game 1 carrying to the next tip.
"Where's Chase? Is Chase in there?" said a TV photographer as a little media scrum formed around Morris in a hallway.
"We're waiting on Chase, you all," Morris said in a deep voice, surrounded by the little media horde.
"So . . . " a reporter started.
Morris cut her off. "We're waiting on Chase."
Then Morris added, "I don't even know who that is." Laughs all around.
Immediately, Morris was asked about Hawks forward Paul Millsap's comment after Game 1 that got a lot of local attention, how "we were playing basketball, and they were playing MMA."
The guys playing MMA, it should be pointed out, won the game. And Millsap's words were aimed toward the man guarding him and maybe the refs officiating the next game.
"If that's MMA, what we do next might be Double MMA," Morris said in this media scrum.
Is he an MMA fan?
"Big MMA fan," Morris said.
Does he embrace the role of setting a tone and being a little bit of an enforcer?
"Yeah, I've always been an enforcer," Markieff said. "My whole life. My brother has been the talker, and I was his backbone. You know what I mean? I've been a guy that leads by example, not by vocal. That's what I do."
Morris deadpanned, "We're going to stay physical and stay playing MMA basketball."
He had paused for a comedic beat between "MMA" and "basketball." If that was the storyline, he could roll with it. Wizards star John Wall walked over next.
"He brings other things to the game, offensively, defensively," Wall said when asked about Morris being an enforcer, but added, "Just his physicality . . . not being scared of anybody, that's a big key to helping our team."
His playfulness comes in different forms. The Washington Post wrote after Game 1 about how Morris had given teammates nicknames based on the famed Death Row hip-hop record label. A Post investigation found Morris himself was Snoop Dog. Made sense that Wall, team star, emerging league star, got to be Tupac. Bradley Beal, secondary star, capable of carrying the team, was Dr. Dre. There were more, but you get the idea.
At his locker, former Villanova center Daniel Ochefu, a Wizards rookie, noted that he asked for this specific locker that is next to Morris. Not only because Ochefu kind of knew Morris from playing in Philadelphia, "more of a genuine-type thing," Ochefu said.
He meant that while Ochefu is usually guarding Morris in practice, banging with him, trying to make it like a game, he gets tips, how to slow down, get in a rhythm. "I knew he was cool-headed but can snap if he needs to," Ochefu said.
When Morris had a sneaker issue in the opening minutes of Game 2 and the Wizards called a 20-second timeout, Ochefu hauled back to the locker room and returned with a new pair from Markieff's locker before the timeout was over.
"That's my vet. He needed his shoes," Ochefu said.
Under the radar
Last summer, the twins worked out with Rasheed Wallace. In some ways, he's their vet.
"He's a good dude," Marcus said. "Sheed knows a lot about the game. He's just a really strong-minded guy, so he thinks guys from Philly, we all should be on the same type page, where nobody can [mess] with us. That's what he preaches."
It was pointed out that on the court the twins sometimes seem like slightly toned-down versions of Wallace.
"Yeah, they allowed more when Sheed was playing," Marcus said. "We have to be smart. We already have a target on our backs because of the emotion we show already on the court. That demeanor, you come in from Philly, it's a [screw you] demeanor. You know what I mean? It's like, no matter who it is, where it is, I can stand toe to toe with whoever."
He said Kyle Lowry and Dion Waiters play with the same chip on their shoulder.
"Any of us, there's that aura," Marcus said.
The respect the twins get now has been earned over time. "Some of the perceptions people had about him in previous places, it certainly wouldn't be our perception," Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy told NBA.com last summer about Marcus. "This guy's one of the most professional guys I've been around, one of the best competitors I've been around and one of the best teammates I've been around. He's really about all the right things. He's about winning and helping his teammates. He won't back down from anybody. He's a coachable guy. I don't have a negative on him."
He's not much for social media, Marcus said, but he did tweet last year, "You don't understand me because you don't understand where I come from."
Morris said he got to Detroit from Phoenix, "first couple of days, the guys were kind of standoffish, because they didn't really know me. They just know what they see, what they heard. Once I got there and got to know them, one of them came to me and said, 'You're nothing how I thought you were going to be.' They thought I was going to be a [jerk]."
You read about the brothers, who combined to make $12 million this year, having an assault charge when they were in Phoenix, the alleged victim, who has sued them, also from Philly. You read when Markieff, feeling his own trust was betrayed by the Suns when they traded Marcus, made it clear he wanted out, too.
You don't hear as much about how Marcus remains really close to former teammates such as James Harden and Isaiah Thomas or how they've contributed time and money under the radar.
"Coming from where I come from man, it was a grind, it was a struggle," Marcus said. "That struggle, that grinding from nothing, and this was all we had, this [basketball] was all that was going to make things possible. Until you're in that situation - this is it, you don't have a choice but succeed - you can never understand what my mindset is."
He added, "I look around the league, I always hear commentators say we need some tough guys. You don't see teams winning championships without grimy dudes on their team. You need those guys. You have to have those guys. Me and my brother are prime examples of that. And we can play, too. It's not like we're just out there talking [smack] without backing it up. A lot of guys do . . . We're going to talk, and we're going to back it up."
You see them before games getting work in like a 12th man. Figuring out how to rest their bodies but get their shots in. There was a 12-day period in March when Marcus had to guard Jimmy Butler, Paul George, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Lebron again, Gordon Hayward and DeMar DeRozen. His body was spent by the end of it. He knows guys like that are going to score, he said, but his mindset is to stop them completely. His brother, maybe an inch taller at 6-foot-9, gets the same kinds of assignments and sometimes throws centers in the mix, so when you see the two 27-year-olds each averaged 14.0 points a game this season, they are now on a high two-way level in their separate careers.
Just as Washington fans have taken to his brother, Marcus feels he gets respect from the people in Detroit.
"The love is easy because they can see the pain from the struggle," he said.
They know it themselves, he said, no different than Philly.
"The mindset is the same," Marcus said.
'This is our city'
Rahim Thompson runs the Chosen League at 10th and Olney, about to start its 16th summer. He remembers the year the twins played for the Hunting Park Warriors, and the time Donte Greene from Baltimore, a McDonalds all-American, committed to Syracuse, came up for a game, playing with the local 10th Street team. Thompson tells about how Greene tore it up, how the next game would be against Hunting Park.
Except it was a cold summer night. Thompson wanted to take the game indoors.
"I get in touch with the twins. They said, 'We're still playing,' " Thompson remembers. "I told them, 'I'm going to take it inside.' They said, 'Nah, you can't take it inside.' I get a call around 4 from Donte. 'I'm about to get on the road. The twins are playing, right?' "
The talk began in the back room when everybody was changing, Thompson said. As the organizer, he was loving it.
You ain't . . . This is our city.
I'm going to be in the league in a year. You've got to do a year of prep.
And it kept getting colder, Thompson said. "Stupid cold."
About half the usual number of people showed up to watch, he said. But the 100 or so people saw the twins take turns taking it to Greene and taking turns guarding him. By the end, there was no need for talk, although he remembers one of the twins repeating, "You're in our city."
"He didn't come back," Thompson said.
Greene did play one year at Syracuse and was drafted late in the first round of the 2008 NBA Draft, but he didn't stick in the NBA. He played in the Philippines this year.
The other story Thompson tells about the twins is about the year one of them hit a game-winning jumper from the top of the key to beat the Logan All-Stars in the championship game. He just can't remember which twin hit the shot.
Game 2 didn't live up to Double MMA. The physical part, sure. It was a grind. Markieff couldn't stay on the court long enough to get in any rhythm, whistles not going his way. Like his brother, he doesn't force the action offensively. Not his job, especially when you've got a John Wall. Sometimes the play is to stand in the corner. Sometimes it's to set a screen and then another one.
Four minutes left, Wizards working back from a deficit, Markieff had the ball on the left side. The matchup was fine, but a couple of dribbles brought a double-team. Beal saw it immediately and cut to the hoop. Markieff saw Beal immediately and fed him. Washington had a lead it would not relinquish, winning 109-101 to go up two game to none in the series.
It certainly wasn't Markieff's night. Wall had 32 points, Beal had 31. Morris had 3 in 20 minutes. He also had a plus-minus of 16 for those 20 minutes, meaning Washington led by 16 points for his time on the floor, and trailed by 8 for the 28 minutes he was on the bench. Strong evidence the Wizards missed Morris when he was gone, especially inside defensively. Millsap got most of his 27 as Markieff sat.
Marcus, glasses on, T-shirt instead of Wizards jersey, stayed in his front row seat along the baseline until the final seconds, heading underneath the stands after raising an arm to salute his brother. Seeing his focus, it was easy to imagine Marcus playing along in his mind.
Afterward, the press horde still wanted Markieff's thoughts, not because he was popping off.
"Refs had a tough job tonight," Markieff said. "Glad we got the win. One of those games."
A reporter noted how the in-house DJ, who clearly had read the Post, played nothing but Death Row artists in his pregame selection.
"I didn't notice that," Markieff said. "That's nice."
Earlier in the day, he hadn't known a reporter had been invited into his home. Didn't seem to bother Markieff walking out the door that Marcus figured it was the quietest place to talk for a little bit. The whole family was getting ready to go over to the game. Their grandfather, who gave them their height, was watching TV. A little food was coming out of the oven for Marcus courtesy of mom.
It was Markieff's house but you couldn't miss the painting over the living room mantle. The twins together as Suns teammates. Another reminder, wherever these guys are, they are together.