So you want to know about Death Row DC? Don’t go to Kelly Oubre Jr.
“I’m not the right person to ask about it,” Oubre confessed. “I’m just a soldier. You’ve got to talk to the head honcho. He’s the big dog.”
The Wizards’ team leader is John Wall, but he isn’t the right person to ask, either. He’ll refer you to the same authority as Oubre.
“Whatever he says, goes,” Wall said.
Who is this head honcho? That would be Markieff Morris, the most recent arrival to Washington’s starting five, and a man whose prints are already stamped all over this first-round playoff series. It was Morris who first made things interesting by deconstructing NBA terminology before the series began: “say stretch four to (Paul) Millsap … say power forward to me,” he advised. It was Morris who roused Washington from a sleepy start Sunday afternoon with a frenetic and physical end to the first half.
It was Morris who executed some sort of judo maneuver while fighting Millsap for a loose ball; Atlanta’s star later groused that the Wizards were engaging in MMA and not basketball. It was Morris who — in his first career playoff game — had 21 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in the Wizards’ 114-107 victory at Verizon. (Only three men — Millsap, Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green — had a game with at least 21, seven and four in last year’s playoffs.)
And it was Morris who, months ago, gave the Wizards their social media nickname, Death Row DC. It’s kind of an inside joke. It’s also kind of serious.
“Death Row; that’s the type of team we are, that’s the type of team we want to be,” Bradley Beal said a few days ago. Which is what, exactly?
“A physical team that will kind of trash talk you a little bit, and that just don’t take no BS,” Beal said. “That’s pretty much it.”
The consensus is that Morris came up with the name, which references the popular 1990s hip-hop record label, some time in January, around the time Washington’s rivalry with the Celtics was heating up. Then Morris started handing out Death Row alter egos. He was Snoop. Wall was Tupac. Beal was Dr. Dre. One of the team’s security staffers was Suge Knight. Trey Burke was Kurupt. Oubre was Daz Dillinger. Jason Smith was Vanilla Ice. Of course, Jason Smith didn’t know he was Vanilla Ice.
“Say what?” Smith asked. “Death Row DC? What does that mean?”
Yeah, what does that mean?
“It just fits us,” Morris said. “They out to get us, that’s how we feel. We feel like we’re the team that everybody’s out to get, because they doubt us. They always doubt us.”
Yes, there are T-shirts. Beal wore one during a road trip to Boston, and some players expect the shirts to be deployed during the postseason. Even if not everyone even knows about the monikers. (“I’m Lil Wayne or something?” Marcin Gortat asked. “I’m Lil Boosie?”)
Now some of this, I think, is done with a tiny wink. Maybe we shouldn’t make too much of a hashtag on Instagram. Hitting three-pointers is more important than nicknames and T-shirts.
But remember, when Morris was traded here last winter — a piece that might have propelled a struggling team into the playoffs — it seemed like something of a gamble. Morris was thought to be a risk, with less potential upside than the first-round pick Washington dealt to Phoenix. The best case was that he would fit in quietly and contribute to a team led by its existing core. The best case was that he would serve as a solid player in the background.
Did the best case ever consider that, in the first playoff game of his life, Morris would score 14 points during perhaps the most important seven-minute stretch of the game, as Washington turned a six-point deficit into a 10-point lead? Or that he would outperform Millsap in that postseason debut? Or that his consecutive alley-oop dunks from Wall — with Morris punishing the rim both times — would prompt some of the loudest roars from a crowd that hadn’t seen a Game 1 at home in 38 years? Or that he would transform into an elder statesman on this still-young group, someone who could help regulate its mood and mentality?
“Kieff is like an OG of the team,” Beal said. “Everybody kind of sees Kieff as a big brother, a little bit.”
Players talk over and over about how calm he is. Coach Scott Brooks uses the same description. “The most mild-mannered person I’ve ever been around that has a high competitive spirit,” he said Sunday. Yet they also rave about his game. Gortat approached both General Manager Ernie Grunfeld and Senior VP Tommy Sheppard before the deal was made last season, imploring them to take a look at Morris.
“If there’s an opportunity, you’ve got to pick him up,” Gortat says he told his bosses. “I told them, ‘He’s gonna be great for us, trust me.’ ”
After Sunday’s explosion, the Wizards are now 11-4 this season when Morris scores at least 20 points. He’s blocked four shots twice, in Washington’s two most impressive wins of the season: over the Warriors and in their playoff opener. Wall was the second-half star Sunday, but he pointed to Morris’s performance when discussing Washington’s potential this spring.
“When he’s playing as well as he did today for us, we’re unstoppable,” the point guard said.
Otto Porter, meanwhile, argued that Morris has been crucial in forging this team’s chemistry and attitude.
“I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s just what we need,” Porter said. “A very tough mentality. Nothing’s easy. Like a big brother, he’s gonna take care of us. He’s gonna do all the things that we need him to do.”
That might include jawing with Millsap at the end of the first half. (“Just setting the tone,” Morris said.) It might include claiming the individual matchup against the four-time all-star. (“I told him, if he wins that matchup, they win the series,” his brother Marcus said after the game.)
Millsap: "foot on the line."
Keef: "shut up."
— Hoop District (@HoopDistrictDC) April 16, 2017
And it might include coming up with a team nickname with origins in ’90s hip-hop. That’s kind of a long time ago for this young team — “way before my time,” Sheldon Mac said — and it seems like just a bit of meaningless online chatter. Until you ask some of the players about the name, and the guy who came up with it.
“It’s a fun meme to come up with, but it actually meant something. It’s something we kind of play by,” Mac said. “It symbolizes toughness, grittiness and just passion to want to win.”
“It’s our theme for the playoffs,” Porter said. “That’s what we’re sticking with.”
“Just straight swag, just straight swag,” Beal said. “These days, everybody’s in a group. We hang out together, and everybody’s real close-knit. So what’s a good group name to have? It’s Death Row DC.”
And they’re crediting that nickname to an unlikely leader, an import who sparked the Wizards on the floor, and gave them a bit of spice off it.
“We’re rolling with it,” Wall said of the nickname. “We ain’t changing nothing up.”