Houston Rockets swingman P.J. Tucker is a vagabond of sorts. He started his NBA career with the Toronto Raptors in 2006-07, though only played 17 games and 83 total minutes. Then, he was out of the league for five seasons, traversing throughout Europe and Asia while playing for teams in Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Germany.
Finally, in 2012-13, he returned to the NBA, only for his coveted 3-and-D skillset to toil away on lottery-bound Phoenix Suns teams for 4.5 seasons. Prior to his half-season in Toronto, he hadn’t played a single minute in the playoffs during the first four-plus years of his tenure in the league.
So, when the Rockets came calling and offered the 33-year-old an opportunity to play for a championship contender alongside his childhood friend, Chris Paul, he pounced.
On a recent episode of The Lowe Post, ESPN’s Zach Lowe conveyed Toronto reportedly threw a bit more money at Tucker than Houston this offseason in hopes of retaining him. It didn’t work. Tucker wanted, and still wants, a ring.
At 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, Tucker is built like a human bowling ball. TNT’s broadcast duo of Chris Webber and Reggie Miller insist on reminding audiences that he’s often the smallest player on the floor during the Western Conference Finals. While factually untrue, it doesn’t mean he isn’t undersized and playing out of position, doing yeoman’s work at the power forward and center spot.
When Tucker signed with the Rockets last summer, he joined a club whose entire roster was designed with one ultimate goal in mind: defeat the Golden State Warriors. Tucker has crafted a reputation as a defensive-minded, versatile wing who sprinkles in just enough long-range shooting to keep defenses honest, making him a perfect fit in Houston.
Thanks in part to Tucker’s arrival, Houston executed a switch-heavy defensive scheme and surrounded its generational maestros — James Harden and Chris Paul — with floor-spacers around the perimeter, plus the league’s chief lob threat in Clint Capela.
While the acquisitions of Tucker, Paul and Luc Mbah a Moute spread the floor for Houston this season, their impact didn’t necessarily manifest on the offensive side of the floor as the Rockets’ net rating only crept up ever so slightly from 111.8 to 112.2, second in the league to Golden State both seasons.
Instead, it was the defense that made a sizable leap. In 2016-17, Houston was a middling defensive club with a 106.4 DRTG (18th league-wide); this season, that mark dropped to 103.8, which ranked sixth-best.
Mike D’Antoni, Daryl Morey and Co. knew there was no outscoring the Warriors, perhaps the greatest offensive juggernaut in history. What those aforementioned acquisitions were intended to do was avoid shootout after shootout with Golden State. Through five games and just one win away from the NBA Finals, Houston has executed that concept brilliantly, flummoxing a previously infallible offense.
In three wins, Houston has amassed an ORTG of 108.9, 3.3 points below its regular-season average. Meanwhile, the defense has been otherworldly as the Rockets have notched a 99.7 DRTG in their victories and Tucker’s been at the forefront, proving that Houston has the personnel to win grind-it-out contests.
Defensively, he’s taken on a bit of the Draymond Green role for his squad, having defended everyone from Stephen Curry to Kevon Looney and holding them to 40.9 percent shooting overall. Most notably, he’s been a help defense wizard, embedding some dynamite into Warrior drives and blowing plays up:
Above, Tucker walls off Curry’s path to the rim with his quick rotation and plays a part in Curry barfing up an ugly, off-balance floater.
Tucker’s most important display of help defense came late in the fourth quarter of Game 5 on another one of Curry’s dashes to the rim:
Klay Thompson set a pick for Quinn Cook to force the Tucker-Harden switch before screening for Curry and inviting another beneficial switch for the Warriors. Then, Curry had the angle on Harden but with Tucker abandoning Cook, Curry was forced to stop a couple steps short of the rim and lofted a runner just a bit too high off the glass.
Thanks to Golden State’s 41-point wallopping in Game 3, Houston, despite a 3-2 series lead, holds a -6.8 net rating. Tucker, though, along with Gerald Green, is one of two Rockets with a positive net rating as the two forwards are both plus-0.8 — although Tucker’s played 111 more minutes (190 to 79). In 50 minutes without Tucker this series, Houston has a net rating of -34.0, giving him the best on-off split of any Rockets player.
Against the Warriors, Tucker is doing a little bit of everything. He’s playing a team-high 38 minutes a night while averaging 8.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 0.8 steals on .481/.527/.667 shooting splits. The ability to hold his own on the glass while playing the small-ball 4 or 5 has allowed Houston to employ more of those profitable, undersized lineups as Golden State has mitigated much of Capela’s effectiveness.
And his 52.7 percent clip beyond the arc (9-of-17) has made defenders pay when they slink off him to help in the lane:
The corners have been Tucker’s sweet spots all year. Eight of his nine made triples —and 14 of his 17 attempts — have come from those areas this series. During the regular season, Tucker shot 40.3 percent (83-of-206) from the corners as he hoisted up a career-high 310 total three-pointers and canned 37.1 percent of them.
Earlier this week, Zach Lowe penned an eloquent profile of Trevor Ariza, another veteran wing for Houston who helps keep the interworkings of this team flowing. Tucker is in that same realm, though he lacks the championship pedigree of Ariza, who won a title with the Lakers in 2009.
Tucker is perhaps aiming to validate his decision to bypass some added financial security in pursuit of a ring during these playoffs. Had he stayed put in Toronto, it’s entirely possible his defensive versatility and floor spacing at the 4-spot — in place of the rapidly declining Serge Ibaka — could have helped lead the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals, the same round Houston is currently in.
Tucker’s career has taken him across the globe, and with the Rockets standing on the precipice of an NBA Finals appearance, this basketball nomad might soon be adding another destination to his voyage.
All stats and videos via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference and are accurate as of May 26.