It was a little over a year ago that Joel Embiid sat in the media room at the Wells Fargo Center and basically begged for the Sixers to get a player like P.J. Tucker.
Tucker was everywhere for the Heat as Miami was able to dispatch the Sixers in six games last postseason. Embiid mentioned his team lacked a physical and mental toughness that Tucker has in spades.
A couple months after that availability, Daryl Morey didn’t go out and sign a player like Tucker. He signed the genuine article. The 37-year-old inked a three-year deal with the Sixers on the first day of free agency.
So, it was only fitting on the night that Embiid might’ve wrapped up his first MVP award that Tucker played a huge role in making sure the Sixers got the win. Tucker’s three threes in the final three minutes of the game helped the team secure a 103-101 victory over the Celtics Tuesday.
As Embiid crushed Boston’s defense to the tune of 52 points on 20-of-25 from the field, the big fella needed a little help on a night where seemingly nobody else could make a shot.
“Obviously, as I kept making shots, they made an adjustment,” Embiid said postgame. “Every single time, it was really Marcus [Smart]. They just kept sending doubles, and just keep making the right plays. And whatever happens, happens. P.J. was huge. Three huge corner threes. We don’t win that game without him.”
In every way it was Embiid’s night.
The MVP favorite recorded his second game this season with 50 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, tying him with this guy named Wilt Chamberlain for the most such games in franchise history in a single season.
And he did it against the Celtics, a team that has long tormented him and beat the Sixers in the previous three matchups this season. It’s only fitting that Embiid is the first player to record a 50-10-5 stat line against Boston since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972.
“ … I knew when he made the first couple in the fourth quarter, he was going to close it out,” Tucker said. “When he gets it going like that, nobody can stop him. They were sending doubles his way, and he’s so good at reading it and still getting a shot off. I don’t know how many free throws he shot, but he got to the free-throw line and was just really efficient.”
But Embiid couldn’t have closed it out without Tucker’s clutch shooting.
Tucker made a name for himself in the NBA as a loose ball magnet, rugged defender and a dangerous corner three-point shooter. When Morey signed Tucker as a free agent in Houston back in 2017, James Harden was in the midst of one of the greatest offensive decades in NBA history. The ultimate role player, Tucker was the perfect complement to the star power of Harden.
The pair became fast friends and were actually hoping to land in Philly together back in 2020, according to Tucker. It took a couple years, but now they’re together again, feeding off each other on the court. That’s why in the guts of the game, Harden suggested to Doc Rivers that Tucker move to the corner and Tobias Harris, who was scuffling offensively all night, to the dunker spot.
“James was the one who set it up, got me over there,” Tucker said. “Trusted me and believed in me always because he knows me better than anybody, probably. And Jo for making the plays. That’s basketball.”
Despite the pre-existing relationship with Harden and Morey and Embiid’s endorsement, Tucker’s assimilation to Philly was bumpy.
Apparently Tucker hasn’t always been thrilled with where he’s been on the floor this season.
“I know him like the back of my hand,” Harden said. “There’s a lot of frustration as far as where he needs to be on the floor, and we’re still trying to work that out. But tonight was great. We put him in the corner because, like I said, he’s an unbelievable corner three-point shooter. He’s been like that his whole career. Tonight, he was in the corner by himself … and he had the confidence to knock the shots down. Hopefully, this game can build his confidence and we can keep going from there.”
That’s ... an interesting quote and a situation that apparently needs to be monitored as we inch towards the playoffs.
But for one night, all was right in Sixers land. Embiid likely sewed up his first MVP award and the player he lobbied for helped seal the win.
Fans were perhaps expecting more offense from a player closer to his 40s than 20s that had just signed a three-year deal — though if you know Tucker’s track record, you should’ve seen it coming.
And Embiid will tell you, it’s the little things he does next to the team’s big stars.
“P.J. has been great the whole season,” Embiid said. “Obviously, he’s not going to score a lot of points, if any. But just the presence on the floor and the little stuff that he does — offensive rebounding; guarding the other team’s best player; just his activity, his communication.
“You can’t judge players off of scoring. I know in this league, people don’t care about defense anymore. It’s all about offense — how many points you score. But offense is not all that matters. There’s two ends on the basketball floor. And he’s been huge even offensively, just doing the little things, like I said — offensive rebounding; setting screens; giving himself up for the team. So I think he’s been great and I’m just happy. We wouldn’t have won that game without him. Three big shots and we really got that win because of him.”
The game itself didn’t mean much in the standings. The Sixers are likely locked into the three seed and the Celtics the two. But it still felt like a big win with the Sixers finally defeating Boston this season and with Embiid possibly clinching the MVP.
As for Tucker, who’s won a championship and played in nearly 1,000 NBA games between the regular season and playoffs, the moment wasn’t all that big.
“My only gratification comes from winning a championship,” Tucker said. “That’s it. I don’t chase points, I don’t chase rebounds, I chase wins and make the right plays to do it. … That’s it.”
P.J. Tucker is here to help the Sixers win big games on the biggest of stages.