Tucker Becoming Elite Rebounding Small Forward

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Goran Dragic, along with most of his teammates, had already started running toward the end of the court.

P.J. Tucker didn’t. Coincidentally, the ball also stayed in the Suns’ possession.

That’s the value the bruising small forward has brought to Phoenix. When it seems the Suns’ turn on offense is over, Tucker buys them an extra chance, a second try, an added life.

“For P.J., the ball is never lost,” Dragic said. “He’s always going to go on the offensive glass. For his size, he’s unbelievable. He does an amazing job, especially on the offensive rebounds.”

Those comments came after Tucker had helped Phoenix finish off the Celtics with a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds. The effort marked his third double-double in the last four games.

And while his recent stretch has impressed, it hasn’t necessarily surprised. Tucker is second on the team in boards per game (6.5), a mark that tops all other forwards measuring 6-6 or shorter and bested only by Pacers guard Lance Stephenson at that height range.

“He’s got a knack for the ball,” Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek said. “When he’s determined to get it, he goes and gets it.”

That’s been especially apparent during Tucker’s recent tear. At Denver, he was responsible for the two biggest plays of the game. The first came with the Suns down two with seven seconds left.

An open Frye jumper – which would have tied it – was off, but Tucker had the presence of mind to know 1) he couldn’t snag the rebound himself but 2) he could at least make a Nuggets’ rebound less of a certainty. He was able to slap the ball off the backboard, after which Markieff Morris scooped it up for the game-tying shot to send it to overtime.

In the extra period, Tucker again sniffed out the rock after a jump ball between Morris and Kenneth Faried. With the play taking place near Denver’s basket, a tip backwards would usually have resulted in the Nuggets’ backcourt securing the ball.

Instead Tucker scrambled to secure it himself. Again, he realized his possibilities while making the play. As he was falling down with the ball, Tucker recognized Goran Dragic streaking down the court and passed ahead. The split-second reaction produced a dunk that snapped a tie with one minute left and put Phoenix up for good.

“He’s made big plays for us all year long,” Hornacek said. “Whether it’s a long rebound or a rebound up by the basket or keeping the ball alive, he just has, at the end of the game, a determination to go get the ball. Not a lot of guys have that.”

Much of Tucker’s stats are effort-based, but teamwork plays a role as well. He knows big men like Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye and Markieff Morris will be doing the majority of boxing out against elite rebounders. It’s a draining and often thankless effort, one that requires much more energy than the actual securing of the ball at the end of the defensive possession.

Yet that end is vital to both the end of the defense and the start of the offense. Phoenix thrives in transition, where they lead the league in fast break points.

Tucker knows this, and plans ahead with the Suns’ big men accordingly.

“I tell the big guys, especially when we play Denver with the [Kenneth] Farieds or even Boston with the [Jared] Sullingers, ‘you guys take those guys out and I’ll come in there and clean it up,’” Tucker said. “That’s just how we’ve got to be. We’ve got to be a unit and help each other out.”

The teamwork extends to all facets of Tucker’s game, though all of them come from the same source: effort. Against the Celtics he tied Dragic for team-high assist honors (six), led the team in rebounds (11) and steals (three) and was one of two Suns who played that didn’t commit a turnover.

“There’s some of those guys out there but there’s not a ton of them,” Hornacek said. “A lot of guys want to be the scorers or the one-dimensional guy, where P.J., if he doesn’t get shots, he still continues to do everything else. That’s what makes him a great player.”