P.J. Tucker is still hungry.
At 35-years old, after a few highly potent runs with the Houston Rockets, Tucker was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks midway through last season and got his first bite. Playing 30 minutes a night, he reached the summit. That was it. His moment. The pinnacle of a decade-long career. An ultimate prize for setting well over 4,000 iron-clad screens and fighting through a thousand more than that.
For some, it’s that moment when the foot, perhaps unknowingly, starts to ease off the gas. As though it’s as difficult to simultaneously apply pressure and put on a championship ring as it is to pat your head and rub your stomach. Tucker waited for that sensation that never came.
“That might be the biggest lie I’ve heard,” Tucker said. “People say that once you make it, you just kind of get complacent, you’re just kind of like whatever. It’s actually the exact opposite. It makes you want it more. That’s why I get now why guys win it and they can’t go to bad teams. I couldn’t play this game and not fight for a championship ever again. There’s no way. It’s impossible.
“Once you hold that trophy up and you go through that, you reach the top of the mountaintop, there’s no other place to be but that. The hunger for that is like nothing else. I thought that I wanted one bad, and then you win it and you want it worse. It was just crazy. It makes sense, you think once you win it it’s like, ‘Oh, I won it, who cares.’ [Now] it’s like, ‘I want it again.’”
It’s tough to hear Tucker say those words, with the conviction he says them with, and not wonder how he and the Miami HEAT had never crossed paths before. “This has been a long time coming,” Tucker said upon signing his contract last summer, “I’ve always said I could play in Miami.” Maybe the basketball gods recognized how snug the fit would be and conspired to keep each party at arm’s length until Tucker’s mid-30’s. But once the Bucks opted not to re-sign him, there he was looking for work in the vastness of summer like a wandering samurai at the end of a long career of sheath-and-unsheath. It just so happened that the next village he walked into was also full of samurai. And they were all working together. Liquid Swords played in the background.
“I love P.J., man,” Udonis Haslem says, offering his rare seal of approval. “I’ll play with P.J. seven days a week and twice on Sundays. What doesn’t he do? He might lead us in offensive rebounds. He comes flying in. Giving us extra possessions. He’s taking charges. He switches pick-and-rolls. He accepts every matchup. He never complains about plays. He only complains about bad defense. That’s the kind of teammate that I want.”
The kind of teammate everyone wants, to hear it told by those sharing the locker room.
THE TUCK RULE
P.J. Tucker can’t help but to laugh.
It’s December 4 and the HEAT just fell to the Giannis Antetokounmpo-less Milwaukee Bucks by 22 points, Miami’s third loss in four nights and the end of a week-long slide on the defensive end that coincided with the loss of Bam Adebayo to a thumb injury for four-to-six weeks along with a tailbone injury to Jimmy Butler. Tucker is asked how the team can get their man-to-man defense, which began the season at a historically stifling level, back on track.
“Just play defense,” he says, laughing. “I’m sorry, that’s a funny question. Defense is just playing defense. Staying in between your man and the ball. It’s getting ball pressure, it’s getting a contest on shots, it’s being able to stay in front of your man. That’s what defense is. There’s no other way to get around it.”
It's the sort of answer that isn’t all that uncommon among premier defenders, akin to Adebayo regularly boiling down defensive responsibilities to “Guard your yard” over the past few years. The better you are at something, the easier you can make it sound. Ask a composer how he writes music or a director how he storyboards an action scene out of nothing and you’re liable to receive some form of, ‘I just do it.’ Defense is what Tucker does, and he knows it comes simpler to him than to others.
“It’s what I’m good at and what I’m focused on,” Tucker said. “Just energy, effort, focus. That’s it. When you got that and you get five guys, I don’t care who it is, you get five guys on the same page with energy, effort and focus, they can get stops and they can win a basketball game.”
It’s far more nuanced than that. That’s the summary. The setup. As one of the handful of players in the league who can legitimately claim to defend all five positions – “There’s sometimes when I say that term, one-through-five, I wish I could have him guard all five guys,” Spoelstra says – and who has switched more pick-and-rolls over the past five years than all but Clint Capela, Tucker has to know the tendencies of every primary and secondary and tertiary option in the league. He does the work, digging into the film and the numbers as he collects all the information necessary to do his job well.
“It’s a little more to defending Giannis [than energy],” Tucker said, again with a chuckle. “It’s knowing your personnel, paying attention to detail, small things. Guys get in certain situations or spots on the floor, knowing when to help, knowing when to go back home. It’s so detailed to be able to stop a team like Milwaukee.”
Four days after the loss in Wisconsin, the Bucks come to town. Antetokounmpo plays, scoring just 15 points on 13 shots as Tucker stands firmly in the way in every way the two-time MVP approached the paint. It’s one of the worst games Antetokounmpo had played in years, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s Game Score, and one of Milwaukee worst offensive performances of the season.
P.J. Tucker vs. Giannis Feature
“His ability to take on all the big challenges,” Spoelstra said. “Whether it’s Giannis or [Khris] Middleton or sometimes with [Jrue] Holiday, we were able to keep our defense at bay at certain points during the game because of his toughness and savviness. You just can’t teach that. That’s just being a great competitor.
“And his voice, just constantly calling out schemes and where guys are supposed to be, encouraging guys, getting on guys in huddles. All of that, was 10x.”
It’s a voice everyone is used to by now. In huddles, in the game, at practice, shootaround, watching film. It’s ubiquitous. Haslem used the word complain earlier, but that doesn’t quite match Tucker’s purpose. His voice is correctional. Instructional. Guiding. A light in the dark.
Somehow he does it without being overbearing, threading the needle between forceful and rubbing people the wrong way. Let’s let the team tell it:
“Whenever he sees something, he shares it right away,” Duncan Robinson says. “Sometimes if you see something and hold on to it, it can get lost in translation in time. He’s not bashful about sharing his opinions, which is great because it gets everything out in the open.”
“If there’s something that he sees needs correction, he’s not going to wait until the next day or the next week. He’s going to correct it with that guy right then and there in real time on the court or on the bench. He’s the real deal,” Tyler Herro says.
“A lot of it is that realness and genuineness and rawness that he comes with. You already know it’s not from a bad place,” Gabe Vincent says.
“No bull****. Brutal honesty. He’ll say it to your face, say it straight up,” Omer Yurtseven says. “We know his intentions. He’s trying to help us out in any way we can.”
“Tuck is one of the loudest people in the gym. When he talks, everybody hears him,” Caleb Martin says. “You know he comes from a good place. When he says things it’s to benefit you and the team. He’s not saying anything to be malicious.”
“It’s just little technical things that he keeps his eye on,” Max Strus says. “He sees everything and knows where everybody should be at every point in the game. It [could be] just as simple as rotating and being on the help side. You got to be there. If you’re not there, he’s going to get on you. He just knows every single thing about defense and he’s always right.”
It would all be a lot – “You can’t be sensitive,” adds Dewayne Dedmon – if Tucker weren’t accountable to himself. If you ever want to know what HEAT Culture actually is, according to those who live it every day, accountability will always be the word near the top of the list. Strus may say that Tucker is always right, but the way he knows that is Tucker is just as hard on himself as he is on anyone else. That’s The Tuck Rule. Be willing to shoulder the blame. Point the finger at yourself before pointing it at anyone else.
“I’m not perfect, I f*** up all the time,” Tucker says. “But my thing is, if I mess up, I’m not going to do it again. You don’t do the same thing twice. It’s being able to know you’re wrong, take criticism and get better. That’s how you become a good defensive team.”
One of the odder numbers of the season is that Miami has a worse defensive rating with Tucker on the floor (108.1) than off (101.9), which may be as good a cautionary tale for using team numbers to describe individual performance as there is. Part of it is that teams are shooting better from three in Tucker’s minutes, and at the volume Miami allows threes – largely as a result of the extent to which they leave perimeter players to help on drives and seal off the paint – every percentage point makes a sizeable dent. Another chunk is that until Miami’s recent wins against Milwaukee and Chicago, Tucker’s smallball lineups hadn’t been effective on the defensive end. A full-time center for a stretch in Houston, Tucker was surrounded there by stout post defenders who could all hold up on a switch down low. When Miami is forced into playing Tucker at that spot due to a sheer lack of bodies, they don’t have the same switchable personnel to rely on.
You don’t have to look to far to know that Tucker is holding up his end of the bargain. Of the 26 players that have defended at least 50 isolations where the ballhandler did not pass out, Tucker is No. 6 allowing .71 points-per-iso according to Second Spectrum tracking data. He’s only defended 15 isolations where the ballhandler passed into an assist opportunity because the HEAT don’t have to send him help – keeping their defense at bay, as Spoelstra put it earlier.
Of the 85 players who have defended over 200 pick-and-rolls, Tucker is No. 26 allowing 0.91 points-per-pick. That’s four spots below Rudy Gobert and two spots below Antetokounmpo. Hilariously, the 6-foot-5 Tucker who switches onto every big in the league has only defended 16 post-ups all season, allowing 0.31 points-per-post. Everyone knows better than to try him.
P.J. Tucker Iso/Post Defense
And before you worry that the HEAT are having to rely on Tucker defending up in size too much in Adebayo’s absence, that there’s going to be a cost to pay come the postseason, here’s his perspective:
“The five is the easiest thing to play for me. I get to direct the defense, I get to talk and be who I am. I get to help out a lot. Five is easy for me,” Tucker says.
“It’s hard to guard Kevin Durant and pick him up and turn him and stay in front of him. That takes a toll on your body.”
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE
P.J. Tucker is more than expected.
The HEAT are not a traditional offensive team. They value rim attacks, but they average some of the fewest drives in the league. Instead, they pressure the paint with the pass, setting up a variety of screens for cutters or using the gravity of their shooters to draw two to the ball and letting their bigs play with an advantage.
When Adebayo is available, he is the key. He holds the ball at the elbow and waits for Tyler Herro or Duncan Robinson to create separation on a cut. He rolls off blitzing defenders and works the middle of the floor with the ball. He’s the one on the other end of the pocket pass or the lob. Miami isn’t as reliant on his playmaking this year as they have been in the past with Kyle Lowry on hand to set the table, but Adebayo’s steady presence as both a play finisher and play continuer still enables everything they want to be.
Without Adebayo and Butler – far and away the team leader in drives – Spoelstra has turned to his now-36-year old role player to be something nobody has asked him to be in years.
“That’s one of the things that we just wanted to give a vision to,” Spoelstra said. “Bam is one of the most unique players in this league, you just cannot put him in any kind of conventional box on either side of the floor. His versality is dynamic and unique. But P.J. has a lot of those qualities and we need that right now. We’ll use P.J. in a lot of the ways that we used Bam and he’s showing us that he’s capable of a lot of that. He’s a very smart player, I already think he’s one of the best screeners, if not the best screeners, in the league. Those kinds of guys you usually can put more on their plate and they’ll be able to figure it out.”
In eight seasons prior, Tucker averaged 1.8 screens per 100 possessions where the ballhandler passed to the screener for a shot or an additional pass. This season, that number is 3.6. Since the team lost Adebayo, the number is 6.1.
For comparison, the league’s preeminent short-roll playmaker, Draymond Green, is averaging 3.7 such plays per 100 possessions. At the absolute apex of the regular season Golden State Warriors in the Steph Curry era, 2015-16, Green’s short-roll number was 5.5.
Tucker isn’t just figuring it out, he’s becoming a legitimate playmaker as the HEAT are getting 1.26 points-per-pick when he gets the ball after setting the screen. Better yet, he has yet to commit a turnover out of those actions and he is somehow using four-dimensional math to make it look like he’s made more jump-stop floaters than he’s actually attempted (55.4 percent on non-rim two’s, a career-high to an absurd degree).
P.J. Tucker Short Rolls
“I think people forget how good P.J. Tucker was,” Lowry said. “He played overseas (Israel, Ukraine, Germany). He’s known for his defense but in college (Texas) that man was an automatic double-double. He’s always been, not put in a so-called box but he starred in his role, he was a screener, playing the five. Now we’re putting the ball in his hands a lot more right now with the situation that we’re in.”
“It’s just opportunity,” says Tucker, averaging a career-high 3.8 assists per 100 possessions, even throwing bouncers to backdoor cutters from the elbow. “Getting the opportunity and chance to do it. A lot of teams had me in the corner for spacing.”
These recent developments may be a pleasant surprise to the HEAT, but what they knew they would get was screening and spacing. For the latter is yes and then some, with Tucker shooting a career-high 44.7 percent from three – again, in his tenth season – while leading the league with 31 corner triples on a ridiculous 56.7 percent from the right corner.
Which leaves us with one of the most fun in-game parlor games this season: watching Tucker hunt for hammer screens. On any given possession when you see Tucker lingering in the dunker spot along the baseline, let your eyes linger there for a beat or two and leave the ball alone. Watch what Tucker is watching and enjoy when he crushes unsuspecting defenders attempting to scramble out to the shooter who is suddenly sliding into unprotected space.
P.J. Tucker Hammer Screens
“P.J. is amazing,” Robinson said. “He doesn’t care about literally anything but that scoreboard. He’ll do whatever it takes to win. He’ll come up to me and say my goal is to get you 15 threes. He’s just unselfish like that.
“He has such a high IQ/ He’s been doing it for so long. He has a great feel for when to slide on the baseline, when to space out versus when to set a screen. For me, a lot of it is just listening to him and playing off of his reads.
Years ago you would have had to take our word for it that Tucker was one of the most prolific hammer screeners in the league. Now, we have the data. According to Second Spectrum, Tucker has set 81 off-ball screens along either baseline this season. The next highest is Fred VanVleet. He has 39. The league leader last season, Jae Crowder, set 83 screens in those two zones.
“He’s like a heat-seeking missile as a screener,” Pat Riley said earlier this season.
You know it when you see it with certain role players. The HEAT have been blessed with a handful of them over the past decade. Shane Battier. Luol Deng. Jae Crowder. Andre Iguodala. Just to name the wings who could all fill, in their own unique ways, the hybrid power-forward spot that has become so crucial in Spoelstra’s builds. You watch them each night, through blowouts and garbage time and Tuesday nights in January and primetime in May, and you grow to appreciate everything they do.
You know, from watching nights of screens and helps rotations and switches and deflections, this is the type of player any team would want. The type of player who, once they’re gone, the HEAT are going to have to do everything they can to find another one. Free agents are compared to them. Draft picks are assigned them as upside.
But you also know, deep down, that there won’t be another one. They’re as unique and effective in their roles as any max-player is in how he gets to twenty points. You can replace, not replicate.
Tucker was already as rare a player as you’ll find. The microball center who works better than most regular centers. Somehow, a decade deep into a career of service, of setting up and defending the best players, he’s been better, and more expansive, than ever. That’s worth your appreciation, and a watchful eye while he’s here for you to watch.
“He’s just a winning player,” Spoelstra said. “That’s probably the shame of it. To the average fan, unless we constantly educate people, no one will have any idea of how many things that he impacts.”
Enemies defeated, conflict settled, calm achieved, job done, the wandering samurai always walks out of frame at the end of the movie. You never know how long he’ll stay, but the village never forgets the days under his watch.
“Whether it’s a conversation, whether its advice, whether it’s a check-in, you can tell he cares,” Vincent says.
“It’s hard not to love him as a teammate,” Robinson says.
“The ultimate teammate,” adds Strus. “Great dude to have in the locker room, takes care of everybody, looks out for everyone, and he’s definitely our leader on the defensive end. He keeps us together.”
NBA locker rooms are many things, but they are rarely wrong. They know fake when they smell it, and to hear the players tell it, Tucker is as real as they come.