Once the playoffs begin, P.J. Tucker makes his opponent’s lives hell.
It’s not something you forget — and it gave his new teammates plenty of flashbacks.
“Did you see him in Game 3 [vs. the Nets] when he was, like, tackling people?” Georges Niang said after practice Wednesday. “I was on the bench and I was thinking, ‘Damn, that’s what he was doing to me a year ago. I’m so glad that he’s on our side.’”
That’s been a popular refrain amongst the Sixers’ current group, even before their series against Brooklyn began. The “I’m so glad that he’s on our side” sentiment has been echoed by almost every player that’s spoken about Tucker.
That’s why, despite grumblings over his contract from certain folks, Tucker has a chance to be worth every penny and add value that isn’t always the most obvious.
It’s sort of funny the way Tucker has gone from in the crosshairs of the fan base throughout the regular season to beloved after a few playoff games. Throughout his career, he’s become a star in his role in part by being a loose ball magnet. During the first round, he averaged 2.8 offensive rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.
They say the ball finds energy. “Playoff P.J.” is a power plant.
“You have a guy that gets you extra possessions, brings toughness, isn’t afraid to tell people the truth — and you need that,” Niang said. “He brings a sense of dog or nastiness that we need, and he does a great job of being a leader. And obviously, he’s been to the mountaintop before, so it’s real easy to listen to P.J. because he knows what it takes.”
The easiest way to judge Tucker’s impact is by looking at the teams he’s left.
He departed from the Rockets not long after James Harden. Of course the loss of Harden was massive, but consider that the Rockets won 11 games with Tucker in the lineup in 2020-21 — for a team that won 17 games total. Houston went 6-31 after he was traded.
The Bucks, a team Tucker helped capture a title in 2021, have fared just fine during the regular season. But they were eliminated by the Celtics in round two last season and were on the wrong end of a fairly unfathomable upset to the Heat in five games.
As for the Miami team he departed to join the Sixers, their regular season was middling. The Heat clearly missed Tucker throughout. Thanks to Jimmy Butler and maybe some form of voodoo and/or magic, they’re onto the next round ... but something tells me they’d be in better shape if Tucker was on their side.
One could argue the Sixers felt that impact in closing out the Nets in four games. Sure, there was a large talent discrepancy, but it would’ve been easy for the Sixers to fold after nothing seemed to go their way to start Game 4. Instead, they mounted a comeback and closed the series.
For much of the regular season Tucker has helped the Sixers win games that the Delaware Valley is used to them losing. There’s a reason they had the best record in the NBA from December on.
“It’s funny, I don’t say it, but your staff says it,” Doc Rives said, “even on the plane with our travel party, 15 times — that’s not a real number, but, ‘That’s a game we would’ve lost last year.’ I bet I’ve heard that 15 times this year. ‘Oh, that’s a game we would’ve lost last year.’ And that’s a good thing to hear. That means your team is strong.”
Physical and mental toughness became the focal point after the Sixers’ embarrassing Game 6 loss to the Heat. Both Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris hammered home that they felt the team was lacking both.
Tucker has never lacked either.
Beyond the toughness, Tucker is one of the smartest players on the floor. At 37, he’s seen it all. With that imposing personality and the cache that comes from having experienced so much team success, when Tucker talks, this team listens.
“Today, he got angry in practice because it was sloppy, and he went off,” Rivers said. “Nobody else did. He just does so many things that are (visible) only to his team, and that’s why you brought him here.”
One of the common things we’ve heard from almost every Sixer since the postseason began is the need to cherish every possession. It doesn’t seem like you have to look too far to see who the main purveyor of that message is.
“I think the biggest thing is he knows the little things matter,” Niang said. “So some may look at it like, ‘Oh, we have a week off. We can turn the ball over, toss the ball around.’ And he’s the one to be like, ‘No, we’re working on building habits that are going to pay off in the long run.’ I think P.J. is really intelligent when it comes to knowing what little things matter.
“Other teams, they kind of just look past it and think their talent will get them through that, where P.J. is more or less like, ‘We need to devour the details and win the little details so that when it does come time and we need that, we have practiced it over and over again and we know what we’re doing.’’”
The Sixers will take Tucker yelling at practice as opposed to making their lives hell in the playoffs.