The Tall And Short Of It: P.J. Tucker Went To Erik Spoelstra With An Idea Before Game 4, And His Coach Listened

P.J. Tucker
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

P.J. Tucker and Trae Young were just hanging out.

Down the stretch of Game 3, with the Atlanta Hawks having absorbed a 21-0 Miami HEAT run in the third quarter and punched right back in the fourth, Tucker was in his customary spot in the corner. On paper, there wasn’t anything wrong with that. Tucker was a 41 percent shooter in the corners this season – No. 7 in the league with 190 attempts. The corners are his home.

The problem was that Nate McMillan was sending his best player, the one matchup the HEAT had been hunting relentlessly for three games, for a nice, relaxing visit to P.J. Tucker’s House. With the HEAT’s half-court offense stuck in the muck, one of their greater issues throughout the regular season, the primary pressure point in Atlanta’s lineup was lounging around with his feet up.

This is the basketball equivalent of Boat Drinks:

With the Hawks protecting their star, Young went on to have his best quarter of a series in which he’s been largely limited. Tucker tried to create openings, running from drunker spot to dunker spot and eventually setting screens for Jimmy Butler, but Atlanta handled it well. Miami’s offense sputtered. The Hawks won.

For Tucker, it wasn’t good enough. He took the experience and laid it out in front of Erik Spoelstra. He wanted a chance to punish the Hawks for hiding Young.

“I told Coach, ‘There’s no way they’re going to disrespect me and put point guards on me.’ I told him that last game when they did it for the whole fourth quarter and I didn’t get a chance at any post-ups.”

“He yelled at me,” Spoelstra said, half-seriously. “I said, ‘Alright, that sounds like a good idea.’”

When the Hawks tried it again Sunday night in a pivotal Game 4, Tucker and Spoelstra were on the same page. With the Hawks clinging to competitive minutes and the HEAT up 13 midway through the third quarter, Miami’s 6-foot-5 do-it-all forward walked Young right to the block and went to work. Dribble. Dribble. Dribble. Hook. It wasn’t elegant. Nothing with Tucker ever is. But neither was Charles Barkley. The ball dropped in and Tucker rewarded himself by lowering his right hand parallel to the ground in the universal gesture for Too Short.

“Today, [Spoelstra] was like, ‘Hey, if you get a guard on you, go get it,’ Tucker said. “I told him you wouldn’t regret it. Coach trusted me.”

“We don’t want [Young] just to be resting on the weakside,” Spoelstra said. “They put him on [Tucker] in the fourth quarter of last game and P.J. this year has proven to be very effective in the post for us. That’s not only as a scorer, he’s been able to do that for us, but also as a great passer, facilitator, decision maker.

Tucker wasn’t supposed to be this good. Not at nearly 37-years old. It had been nearly a decade since he shot over 45 percent from the field. In three of the past four seasons, as he became increasingly synonymous with the corner three, he shot below 40 percent. He scored 2.2 points per game with Milwaukee last season, 4.3 a night during their run to the title. All signs pointed to a player who, while maintaining Corner-Three-And-D expertise, was slowing down in all other aspects of his game.

Turns out it was just a matter of perspective. That may have been how the league saw him. That may have even been how Spoelstra saw him, at first. But Tucker knew there was more to tap into. When Bam Adebayo went down for six weeks with a torn thumb ligament and the HEAT were dealing with health and safety protocols, Spoelstra went to the well.

“That’s one of the ancillary benefits of having all the injuries and COVID stuff in December, January and February,” Spoelstra said. “We had to explore different ways to get a trigger. He was one of those big ones in those months. We just went back to that menu tonight.”

“I think he just has always known about my competitiveness and how hard I play, I don’t think he knew I could actually score sometimes,” Tucker said. “So throughout the season with guys out he’s given me the opportunity to bring it up and direct some plays and put the ball into my hands sometimes.”

The result was possibly the most diverse season of Tucker’s career. He set career-highs in three-point and true-shooting percentages. He made more two-pointers – converting at a 54 percent rate – than he had made in five seasons. As he rolled off screens and made plays in the middle of the floor, he set a career-high in assist rate. He dunked three times after dunking zero times in the previous two seasons.

And he posted up 28 times after posting up just 16 times in the previous four seasons combined. With Miami running their post-split actions, all their shooters cutting and diving off one another as Tucker surveyed for the perfect pass, the HEAT produced 1.26 points-per-post when Tucker had it on the block.

Just like in Game 4, the volume wasn’t huge. Tucker scored on Young just the once – amusingly, he went ahead and posted up De’Andre Hunter, Atlanta’s best defender, on the next possession, scoring on him, too – and 28 post-ups aren’t exactly going to blow the bloody doors off. It’s not a matter of needing it all the time, just knowing that it’s there when the time is right.

The same principle applies to playing Tucker at center. Everyone knew that capability was there. Houston had traded Clint Capela to Atlanta a couple years back with the explicit intention of playing Tucker as the primary five man in a switch-everything lineup. You didn’t have to remind anyone that despite his height, the One-Man Iron Curtain was not a mismatch in the post. Or anywhere else, really. Yet through the first few months of the seasons, including the Adebayo-less December, those lineups weren’t particularly effective. They scored plenty with the spacing they provided, but through the first 200 minutes lineups with Tucker at the five were allowing 120.25 points per 100 possessions.

It was enough to win them a few games during the direst of straits, but it didn’t quite have the punch of a postseason lineup. Spoelstra kept it on the table.

“When we had to do that in those months without Bam, I liked it,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t know what the plus/minus was, but those were valuable, versatile minutes for us. Most importantly we ended up being able to see something different just in case we needed it. We were able to access that now based on need in this series.”

The trend line would steady its way upwards. In the subsequent 206 minutes with Tucker at the five, the Defensive Rating dropped to 112.38 as Miami outscored opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions. Like everything else about Tucker’s game that Spoelstra was open to, he knew he had another option should be need it.

In 22 minutes against Atlanta, used in part due to foul trouble for Adebayo, lineups with Tucker at the five are plus-23 with an Offensive Rating of 137.5 and Defensive Rating of 74.4. The efficiency doesn’t matter much in such a small sample. What matters is those lineups, the sort of versatile, change-of-pace lineups that every team with championship aspirations needs, are working. With Tucker able to hold up against Trae Young, having a miserable series by his standards, on the ball and provide relentless and stable help off of it – a topic worth an article on its own – there’s nothing his presence concedes.

“I played a whole season at the five. I love playing the five,” Tucker said.

That much isn’t a surprise. Neither are Tucker’s post-ups, at this point, or his soft, wrist-rolling touch in the paint. The time for surprise was back in December, when Spoelstra discovered Tucker’s multitudes. The time for discovery is over. When Tucker goes to his coach and presents an idea, he already has an answer. If Tucker says he can do it, he’ll do it.

“It’s great to have a coach you can have a dialogue with,” Tucker says.

He may only have posted up a couple of times Sunday night, but that’s what this time of year is all about. One small adjustment, one short conversation, that produces four points over two possession, can be the difference between winning and losing. And Tucker, both too tall and too short when he needs to be, is more than familiar with those margins.

“It’s the playoffs,” Tucker said. “This is it. This is what I live for.”

The only surprise at this point would be if Tucker, after a season of over-delivery, didn’t put his own words into action.

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