It’s no secret that P.J. Tucker is still struggling to find his way as a Sixer. He’s been nearly invisible on offense and inconsistent on defense for much of the season, which has raised questions about the decision to sign him to a three-year, $33 million contract in free agency this past summer.
But in Saturday’s showdown against the Denver Nuggets, he proved to be the unlikely hero while Joel Embiid rained hellfire against two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.
Embiid picked up two fouls in the first quarter, which threatened to limit his aggressiveness on both ends of the court. With Jokic roasting Montrezl Harrell like he did back in the bubble playoffs, head coach Doc Rivers decided to make an adjustment right before halftime and make Tucker defend Jokic while Embiid switched onto Aaron Gordon.
That helped the Sixers erase a 15-point halftime deficit and rally for a thrilling 126-119 come-from-behind statement win.
“We talked about it last night and the night before,” Rivers said afterward regarding the decision to put Tucker on Jokic. “I watched the Miami [Heat] game from a year ago, and I thought Tuck did a really good job on him [Nikola Jokic].
“We just felt like at halftime, we weren’t up into him. He was catching it where he wanted to catch it. And he’s such a focal point of their offense that if Tuck can get up under him and make him catch it above the three-point line, now those handoffs, you can go under, they don’t matter anymore. Where in the first half, he caught everything on the elbows and low. I thought Tuck, listen, Joel [Embiid] was phenomenal. He had 47 points, but we don’t win the game if P.J. Tucker doesn’t play. And the way he played in the second half was extraordinary.”
Rivers wasn’t the only one who thought that’s what swung the game in the Sixers’ favor.
“Honestly, that was probably the biggest adjustment of the game that allowed us to find some real momentum to win,” forward Tobias Harris said afterward. “Tuck was amazing, just being able to put his versatility on a guy like Jokic. It took them out of a lot of their movement-type sets. When you’re able to switch. But also, Tuck is a versatile defender, and he was able to be everywhere and show a different look at Jokic. I thought that was the biggest adjustment that was made to allow us to win this afternoon’s game. That was huge for us.”
With Embiid guarding Jokic in the first half, the Nuggets destroyed the Sixers with backdoor cuts. They scored 73 points while shooting nearly 66 percent from the field and 59 percent from three-point range, while Jokic racked up 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He was a plus-18 during his 18 minutes on the court, which hardly suggested a second-half comeback was in the offing.
After Tucker switched onto him, Jokic finished the second half with eight points on 2-of-5 shooting, four rebounds, four assists and six turnovers. He had only two points on 1-of-2 shooting, two assists and three turnovers in the tightly contested fourth quarter, while Tucker helped seal up the game with two momentous plays in the final minute.
With the Sixers clinging to a three-point lead, James Harden launched an end-of-the-shot-clock three-pointer that clanged off the front rim. Three Nuggets were in the paint ready to secure the rebound, but Tucker came soaring in with a putback tip-in that pushed the Sixers’ lead back up to two possessions.
Lost in Joel Embiid's 47-point masterpiece yesterday was P.J. Tucker making two of the game's biggest plays. pic.twitter.com/qZwzEBMPaN— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) January 29, 2023
On the ensuing trip down the floor, Jokic caught the ball along the perimeter and started dribbling his way past Tucker to the hoop. While Jokic seemed to get a step on Tucker, the savvy veteran reached in and smacked the ball away as Jokic gathered the ball for a shot attempt.
Embiid afterward: "I like getting into the fourth quarter, getting into those type of possessions where you've gotta go out and make the plays. Whether it's offensively or defensively, that's when you find out who's who. Who's made out for those type of moments."— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) January 29, 2023
Tuck qualifies. pic.twitter.com/1b4KutRFs8
“He’s experienced,” Rivers said afterward while discussing the importance of those two plays. “They were trying to rotate off of him, he dives to the basket. He knows how to play basketball. That’s why we went out and got him. Because of nights like tonight. He can win a game for you, and he did that.”
Embiid also gave Tucker credit for the work he did on Jokic defensively.
“With me down there protecting the rim, they took a lot of jumpers in the second half,” he said. They had a hard time going inside. I actually told the coaches, I was like, ‘That’s probably how we should be guarding.’ Because when I was guarding Jokic, they were able to get whatever they wanted because he’s such an amazing passer. And if you don’t pay attention or if you don’t have a rim protector back there, they were getting whatever they want. So I thought we made it harder for them to get easy baskets in the second half, and that’s what led to the comeback.”
As Tucker spent the second half putting Jokic in a maximum-security prison, Embiid erupted for 28 points on 10-of-14 shooting, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. Gordon, his primary defensive assignment, had only seven points on 3-of-4 shooting, one rebound and one assist. Jokic was a minus-19 in the second half, while Gordon was a minus-14.
“It just made me more aggressive,” Embiid said afterward about Rivers’ decision to switch him onto Gordon. “Picking up those early fouls, especially when you’re guarding such a great player, obviously I want to stay on the floor. I don’t want to foul. But then again, it’s hard to guard great players, especially when you’re in foul trouble. Especially if you want to stay on the floor. You just try to make it tough for him. I think as a team, we did a pretty good job on [Jokic]. He shot 8-for-12. That’s how good he is. He’s always going to be efficient. He doesn’t take bad shots. You’ve just got to try and make it as hard as possible, but I thought in the second half, making that switch won us the game.”
This was just one regular-season game, so we shouldn’t overreact too much. Overcoming a double-digit deficit against a legitimate title contender is a testament to this team’s lack of quit, but it would be ideal if the Sixers stop falling into such early holes in the first place.
Still, the coaching staff’s willingness to experiment with Tucker’s defensive role bodes well for their playoff outlook. With Paul Reed currently mothballed in Rivers’ rotation and no frontcourt reinforcements guaranteed to arrive ahead of the trade deadline, they need another option beyond “watch Trezz concede a layup line whenever Embiid needs a breather.”
Saturday gave hope that despite Tucker’s inconsistency thus far, the Sixers are saving their creative usage of him for when it matters most.
Given the tread on the 37-year-old’s tires, it makes sense not to wear him down through the slog of an 82-game regular season. But the version of Tucker that showed up Saturday will be key to the Sixers’ title aspirations this year.