PHOENIX -- A bit of white cloth stuck out of P.J. Tucker's left nostril as he sat on the ground, flailing and screaming. The plug was the result of a bloody nose 12 minutes earlier, when Tucker collided with Kevin Durant chasing after a loose ball. With less than 50 seconds left and Phoenix leading Oklahoma City by three, the Suns forward let out whatever was left inside him.
Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker reacts after he picked up a lose ball and a foul against the Oklahoma City Thunder. pic.twitter.com/R5tFFk0NP6— David Kadlubowski (@Davidkadlu) April 7, 2014
Step back to seconds earlier, when Durant took a handoff at the top of the key and drove straight to the hoop. Tucker had been there all night and was there again. As Durant spun to lose his fellow Texas Longhorn, Suns guard Eric Bledsoe swooped in for the steal and went the other way.
From somewhere inside him during his 40th minute of play, Tucker dug out the energy to chase after the ball, almost expecting that Bledsoe would be met at the rim of the other basket by Russell Westbrook. Westbrook's carom bounced to Derek Fisher, but Tucker mustered the strength to rip it out. He dove on the floor to gain possession, drawing a foul.
When the whistle blew, he knew the Suns' victory was close. His upcoming free throws would give his team a 117-112 lead, and Phoenix would never look back, picking up a 122-115 victory and staying ahead in the West's No. 8 seed death match.
"I have no idea what happened. I don't recall any of that," Tucker said when he was asked about the sequence after the game. "That stuff is just raw emotion."
"It's one of those things, we got to win," he added. "Fate is in our hands. We can't take any of these games lightly."
The numbers said a bit. Tucker scored a career-high 22 points, hit four three-pointers and got the best of Durant on the defensive end late in the fourth quarter. While Durant passed Michael Jordan's streak with 41 consecutive games of 25 or more points, Tucker and the Suns were jubilant over their playoff livelihood remaining intact.
After chasing Durant and getting knocked in the face, Tucker kept coming. He laughed when a media member asked him where he found all the energy.
"Watching my kids all day. I got a house that's ready to explode," Tucker said. "I don't know, man, it's that time of year. Once the ball's thrown up, you got to muster it any way you can."
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In 2006, Tucker spent 17 games in Toronto as a rookie before leaving the country for six years. He quietly returned to the NBA before what became a dark 2012-13 season in Phoenix. He was more mature and expecting to carve out this under-appreciated role. Defense and grit would make him valuable.
It's a story similar to the one being played out by the Suns as a team. Jeff Horancek's crew wasn't expected to do anything but challenge the Philadelphia 76ers for the best lottery odds, but they're still fighting veteran clubs in Memphis and Dallas for the final playoff spot. The roster is filled with youngsters who haven't seen the best or the worst of the NBA. Tucker says that can be a good thing.
"Everybody knocks us, they talk about when we lose or we have bad games that this is a young team and all that stuff," Tucker said. "In these games right here, it's the same thing. We're a young team. It rolls right off our shoulder. We get to the next play, we yell at each other but we're friends. We're teammates but we're friends. It's a weird group. Being a young team is also an advantage for us."
Phoenix finds itself controlling its own destiny after using the youthful energy to drop the Thunder, but its five remaining games include outings at Dallas, at San Antonio and at home against a Memphis team chasing after the Suns. Hornacek's team will rely on the Goran Dragic and Bledsoe backcourt duo, the MIP candidate in Gerald Green, the Morris twins breaking through in their third seasons and Channing Frye's three-ball. But don't overlook Tucker's emotional leadership.
"Even in practice, he's always battling, he's defending," Dragic said. "He's great for us. I've always said, hopefully he's going to stay here a long time. He's such a warrior."