P.J. Tucker has waited his whole career for this. The 33-year-old forward never played on a team that made the playoffs until last year, and this is the first time he has still had games to play in mid-May. Tucker could have re-signed with the Toronto Raptors last summer, but took less money to join the Houston Rockets. Seven months ago, before the regular season even started, Tucker told me he was sold on this situation for a simple reason. 

“Winners,” Tucker said in October. “They win, man. I wanted to be on a team with veterans that knew how to play, that knew how to win. Coach [Mike] D’Antoni’s reputation [speaks for itself]. Guys I’ve known that played for him loved him. The front office is great. It was a great fit from the beginning.”

As optimistic as he was, even Tucker might not have predicted that the Rockets would win 65 games and earn the top seed in the Western Conference, giving them home-court advantage over the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals. He (and fellow free-agent addition Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) immediately changed the Rockets’ identity, providing what Tucker called a “different edge” as well as the obvious defensive versatility. In February, he replaced Ryan Anderson as a full-time starter. Houston finished the regular season sixth in defensive rating, trying to perfect a switch-heavy style of defense that it would need against the defending champions.

With the Rockets’ 127-105 victory over Golden State in Game 2 on Wednesday, this 1-1 series — largely seen as the real NBA Finals — is suddenly interesting. The Rockets can thank Tucker for that. As well as his typical brand of intense defense, he had 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists, shooting 8-for-9 and making five of his six 3-point attempts in 36 minutes. 

Tucker’s production is a reflection of the fact that Houston’s entire ecosystem functioned much better in the second game of the series. In Game 1, he only took three shots and scored one point in 35 minutes. While Houston’s offense wasn’t bad in the opener, it didn’t create as many easy looks as it normally did. The Rockets knew they had to respond by getting more stops, pushing the ball after rebounds and getting everybody involved. Tucker was a huge part of that, guarding just about everybody and making the most of his offensive opportunities. 

“Our whole key was getting stops, running,” D’Antoni said. “We played ’em with a lot more force on defense, we played with a lot more force on offense. We didn’t just wait on ’em. We drove it and passed it, drove it and passed it, and by doing that — which was what we wanted to do every game, it doesn’t work all the time — we were able to control the game. But we did it from the defensive end first. We know that. They know it. We just gotta keep repeating it.”

D’Antoni’s repeated references to “playing with force” in his post-game press conference brought Tucker to mind. This is a 6-foot-5 guy who regularly plays center, fighting 7-footers for rebounds and daring anybody to post him up. And he loves it. 

“When I get to go to the 5, I love doing it no matter who we’re playing because I kind of get to dictate the defense and kind of be the anchor,” Tucker said. He then made a bold claim, considering the team he’s battling right now: “We feel like our small lineup is the best. We get what we want on offense and on defense. We switch everything. We love that lineup.”

Tucker’s ability to make 3-pointers makes that configuration work. He made 37.1 percent of his 3s in the regular season, but, heading into the playoffs, the conventional wisdom was that opponents would leave him open and make him prove that this was not a fluke. This pick-your-poison tactic was somewhat understandable at that point, but much less so now: Tucker has taken 4.7 3s a game in the postseason and made 48.2 percent of them.  

P.J. Tucker makes his presence felt in Game 2.
Getty Images

Tucker might not be an All-Star or an Olympian, but his rise to essential contributor on a championship contender is about as remarkable as Draymond Green’s. Both were picked No. 35 in the draft, praised for their competitiveness but labeled tweeners who didn’t have a true position, didn’t shoot well enough and didn’t have explosive athleticism. 

In March of Tucker’s rookie season with the Toronto Raptors, following a stint in what was then known as the D-League, he was waived. Tucker spent the next four years playing for teams in Israel, Ukraine, Greece and Germany before a successful summer league with the Phoenix Suns brought him back to the NBA. He had improved overseas, of course, but he also returned to a league that was different. Every team wants to be as versatile as possible, and every coach wants more two-way wing players and defenders who can hold their own against point guards and centers. 

Tucker isn’t usually thought of as a playmaker, but on a team that spaces the floor like this, he can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim or kick it out to an open shooter. And with James Harden and Chris Paul creating open shots, his job is easy — on one end of the floor, at least.  

“Honestly, I never worry about my offense,” Tucker said. “Obviously, James and Chris are such good playmakers; if we play the right way, if we do the things we’re supposed to do on defense, then we’re going to score points, we’re going to get as much offense as we [need]. It’s all on defense. If we get stops, and we’re able to run, it changes the game and changes the way we play.” 

Unknowingly, Tucker was channeling his coach, who repeatedly told reporters that Houston’s bounce-back game was primarily about playing with more intensity, making fewer mistakes and getting out in transition. The Rockets might be underdogs against the Warriors, but they know who they are and — perhaps even more important — they believe they can beat anyone. When Tucker, Trevor Ariza (19 points) and Eric Gordon (27 points) all play like they did on Wednesday, they make you think they might be right. 


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