Tucker’s subtle contributions don’t go unappreciated by Heat coaches, teammates

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·3 min read
Daniel A. Varela/dvarela@miamiherald.com
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When Erik Spoelstra walked into the locker room at halftime, his Miami Heat team trailing the Boston Celtics by eight in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, he wasn’t sure if P.J. Tucker would be involved in a hopeful comeback. But Miami’s head coach couldn’t even get the question out before Tucker looked him square in the eyes and let him know.

“Don’t even think about it,” Tucker told him. “I’m playing.”

Tucker’s return to the lineup after rolling his ankle in the second quarter was as a big factor in the Heat’s second half surge as Jimmy Butler’s scoring or Bam Adebayo’s rim protection. What Tucker does isn’t as readily apparent in the boxscore, but his presence was important during Miami’s 22-2 run that powered its 118-107 win in the first game of the series Tuesday.

“I don’t even know what his stat line was,” Spoelstra said. “He does all the right things. He’s like a great linebacker. He just gets everybody organized.”

While Butler scored 17 of his 41 points and Adebayo made two SportsCenter-worthy blocks in a third quarter in which Miami outscored Boston 39-14, Tucker took just one shot during the run but was central in the Heat holding the Celtics to just two points through the first 6:39 of the period.

“He has the tough job every night of guarding the opposing team’s best player, and then going down there and shooting the ball five times,” Butler said of Tucker, who finished with five points on 2-of-5 shooting, six rebounds and three assists. “You have to respect that. Because some guys are like — and I even get like this at times. I’d be like, ‘man, I’m not going out here just to play defense and not go down there and shoot the ball.’ He never, ever, ever complains.

“He’s one of the biggest reasons why we’re winning, because he does all the little things,” Butler continued. “It’s easy to follow suit whenever you’ve got somebody like that leading your team.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Heat coaches and players throughout the season. Tucker, who signed with the Heat last summer after a championship run with the Milwaukee Bucks, is respected not only for his experience but also for his toughness.

When Tucker rolled his right ankle midway through the second quarter, the Heat trailed by 11 and it seemed that their chances of making the Finals were beginning to dim.

Tucker didn’t appear to make contact with anyone but came up limping after a defensive possession. He immediately went to the sideline and fell to the floor near the Heat bench. After being helped up, he hobbled to the locker room and wasn’t seen again until the third quarter.

But Tucker never doubted he’d return. He swapped his shoes, and greeted his team at halftime with a message: The Heat needed to be more physical.

“PJ’s voice was heard a lot,” Gabe Vincent said.

What ensued was a masterclass defensive performance. The Heat forced Boston into 16 turnovers, recorded 10 steals and blocked 12 shots in the game. Tatum, after scoring 21 in the first half, was limited to eight points on 1 of 7 shooting in the second.

In order to return to the game, Tucker joked after the game that “There’s a genie back there” in the locker room who “took one of my wishes” and helped the Heat protect home court. His teammates, meanwhile, credited his toughness.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear Tucker’s presence was — and will continue to be — an important one.

“Tuck,” Spoelstra said, “he inspires everybody.”