2020 Playoffs | West Semifinals: (1) Lakers vs. (4) Rockets

Lakers bring height, P.J. Tucker provides Rockets' small-ball heart

Committed to their 6-foot-5 center, Houston's small-ball experiment faces its toughest test of the playoffs

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

ORLANDO, Fla. — Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni got jokes.

“What do you mean, size disadvantage? I’m as tall as Frank Vogel.”

And this:

“PJ’s gonna guard both. ‘P’ will be on Davis and the ‘J’ will be on LeBron.”

OK, then. Any more questions about “small ball” and P.J. Tucker and the Rockets’ challenge of chopping LeBron James and Anthony Davis and the tall-ball Lakers down to size in this upcoming playoff series? Or does that settle it?

For the record, D’Antoni has a few inches on Vogel, the Lakers coach. Now the real issue is Tucker, the critical defensive player in Rockets vs. Lakers, who gives away a combined 9 inches to LeBron and Davis. Remember, they’re both All-Stars, future Hall of Famers and perennial All-NBA choices who destroy game-plans against them. It’s not just about their height, it’s about the enormity of their size and skill and impact.

> Game 1: Rockets vs. Lakers (Friday, Sept. 4 at 9 ET on ESPN)

In their path will be Tucker, generously listed at 6-foot-5, who’s about the biggest and definitely the toughest player the Rockets will throw their way. Yet he’s minuscule when compared to traditional centers and interior intimidators.

Back in the spring, Houston rolled the dice in order to further fortify the vision D’Antoni had for his system: They traded 7-foot center Clint Capela, a reputable defender in the paint but a clog in an offense that emphasized spacing and 3-point shooting. By default, Tucker now gets the big-man assignment, and he’s as incredulous about that as you are.

“If you told me three years ago that I’d be playing center for the Rockets,” he said, “I would’ve laughed at you.”

The goal for Tucker against the Lakers is to prevent this series from becoming a laughter. If there’s anyone at 6-foot-5 who’s up for that challenge, it’s Tucker, a hyper competitor who’s triggered at any thought that the Rockets will be hopelessly overwhelmed defensively.

“Since you were little kid, you played against grown men,” he said. “Just something you do. It’s basketball, man. It’s being smart, using your size as an advantage. I can get into people. I can get into your stomach, so you can’t back me down. I can stay in front of you, I can move my feet, I can be aggressive. People don’t understand that it can be a disadvantage being tall, too.”

He’s 35, an age where decline is lurking around the corner, although Tucker is fighting to stay in prime. He’s a strong and squatty 245 pounds and knows how to leverage his legs and forearms in the post. He’s also quick for his weight and obviously wise here in his 10th NBA season.

More than anything, Tucker falls into the category of “Player You Need To Have” in your playoff rotation. It’s not just about his basketball smarts and rugged demeanor. The court shrinks this time of the season and the emphasis on half-court play favors him.

Tucker’s play in the post-season is traditionally higher than the regular season. In the past, his rebounding rises from 5.6 to 6.9 and his habit of making plays looms as critical once again. As a bonus, his overall shooting (48%) and 3-point shooting (46.7%) are substantially better in the playoffs. The Rockets can get compensation from others if Tucker can’t consistently make the corner 3-pointer, but they have few options if he can’t slow Davis and LeBron.

I’ve guarded Anthony Davis every time I’ve played him, since he first came into the league. There is no difference.”

Houston’s P.J. Tucker

“Everybody makes a big deal about small ball,” said Tucker. “Well, I’ve guarded Anthony Davis every time I’ve played him, since he first came into the league. There is no difference. Really doesn’t matter. It’s all going to come down to making them take the shots we want them to take. You don’t want give anyone 3s, and don’t want to give anyone layups.

“Every game gonna be different. What we do will have changes, you never know in the playoffs. We’ll make adjustments.”

Tucker will start on Davis and rotate when necessary on LeBron, who’ll draw Robert Covington initially. The idea is to keep switching and give those Laker superstars different looks and body types and levels of physicality, and also avoid collecting fouls, since the Rockets aren’t deep in defenders. Since Covington was acquired at midseason and doesn’t bring the same body of defensive work, Tucker is the Rockets’ most proven defender against big men.

“Just his tenacity, not giving up on a play, using his strength, just a combination of that,” D’Antoni said. “What he misses in height, he makes up with will and a big heart. Look, if you want to play great defense and bring the skills to do that, you also need the mindset, and he obviously’s got that.”

He’ll need it. LeBron and Davis are coming off a stellar first round, where they showed the expected 1-2 punch that makes the Lakers a title favorite. They averaged a combined 57 points and nearly 20 rebounds against the Blazers, and Portland had height with Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside. LeBron and Davis are solid off the dribble and can reach the rim, but also shoot with range. They’re tough for anyone to guard, even the game’s very best defenders. That’s why Tucker, and also Covington, are totally on the spot here.

“There’s advantages and disadvantages to what we do,” said D’Antoni. “They know what are weakness is. We have to lessen that blow with the tenacity and fight to get it done.”

D’Antoni mentioned “weakness” in reference to height only. He believes Tucker will be more than credible; that’s why the Rockets traded Capela to bet big on Tucker in the first place

“P.J. was easy just because his whole career he’s been battling big 4s,” D’Antoni said.

The system created and perfected by D’Antoni makes for high-scoring games and serves as a stage for James Harden. What it hasn’t done yet is reach the NBA Finals — not bearing fruit in Houston or an earlier iteration in Phoenix, where D’Antoni coached Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire.

There are certainly other issues the Rockets must address against the Lakers, including whether they can limit turnovers as well as the slippage in shooting by Russell Westbrook.

Obviously, keeping LeBron in check is high on the list.

“He is who he is,” Tucker said. “LeBron is going to try to pick you apart.”

Overall, the small-ball system will be on trial once again in the postseason. Not that the Rockets are claiming to have second thoughts.

“We’re more secure and more confident in how we play,” said D’Antoni. “They’re the biggest team we’ll see, so it’ll be a challenge, but we’re real confident in what we’re doing.”

There’s nothing Tucker can do about his height; he’s stuck at 6-foot-5. However, if he doesn’t rise to the challenge of LeBron and Davis, the Lakers will be a step closer to The Finals … and small-ball to extinction.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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