Who could have predicted a former 2006 second-round pick — who played 17 games during his rookie season for the Toronto Raptors before embarking on a six-year international stint — would become the most pivotal player in a potential NBA dynasty-crushing series? Yet here we are.
After trailing 2-0 to open the Western Conference semifinals, Houston came roaring back, tying the series at two. The change of direction in the series happened in part thanks to Steph Curry’s woeful shooting in Game 3 and Klay Thompson’s rough night in Game 4. But the Rockets’ biggest adjustment has come by slotting their 6’6 small forward, Tucker, at center. It’s he, and not 7’ Clint Capela, whose been competing with the Warriors on the boards.
This James Harden 4-point play only happens because PJ Tucker gets the offensive rebound tip-out pic.twitter.com/KpPhIyG2b4— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) May 7, 2019
PJ Tucker is simply crushing the Warriors pic.twitter.com/XVDlSPjcHE— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) May 7, 2019
Yet Tucker’s fit seamlessly as an undersized big, partially because his shorter frame still packs 225 pounds of muscle. He’s able to box and seal off taller opponents to grab rebounds, and, by nature of his quicker legs, can run the floor and spot up from distance. Ironically, he’s playing the small-ball center role Draymond Green popularized.
In Game 3, when Houston first deployed him down low, Tucker had seven points and 12 rebounds, five of which were offensive. In Game 4, he scored 17 points on 12 shots, and grabbed 10 board, half of which were offensive and many of which came at critical points in the fourth quarter.
“All the [TV] commercials aren’t about guys that defend, they’re about guys that make shots and dunk,” Chris Paul said of Tucker, per the Washington Post’s Ben Golliver. “What he’s doing is work on both ends of the court. I’m glad people are getting a chance to see, front and center, that basketball isn’t just all about offense. You can be a star in your role guarding.”
A star in his role exactly what Tucker’s been. He spent most of the night in Game 4 defending Durant on one end, then knocking down threes on the other. He’ll rarely outscore teammate James Harden, nor will he match his flashy step-back threes. But he’s playing an enormous role for someone making $8 million this season, which is less than teammate Iman Shumpert. It could be enough to knock out the Warriors’ empire for good.
Tucker is 34 years old, but this is his breakout year in the eyes of casual fans, both on- and off-the-court. His game has never garnered such appreciation as it is right now in this moment. A bruiser in the paint and great-but-not-elite shooter, nothing about his play screams all-star or must-watch. But back-to-back huge games against Golden State have given him spotlight and proven the value of contributors outside the horde of Hall of Famers on the floor.
PJ Tucker came up BIG for the @HoustonRockets in Game 4, posting a double-double and finishing as the @FanDuel Value of the Night!— NBA Fantasy (@NBAFantasy) May 7, 2019
He had 17 PTS, 10 REB, 3 AST, 2 STL, 1 BLK & 3 3PTM for 42.5 #NBAFantasy points - returning 7.3x his $5,800 DFS price!#NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/69MxuRroaj
And if his play doesn’t fully enthuse, his personal life passions will. A pancake aficionado, Tucker’s also become a cult hero whose investment in shoes, clothes, and the high-starch breakfast food has been broadcasted to the masses. The pictures of the pancakes he ate pregame were appointment viewing, his cowboy-esque fits were taken to mainstream Instagram accounts, and his endless sneaker closet was revealed.
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// Couldn’t do a sneaker feature and not include @PJTucker. We checked out his crazy collection in Houston, where he has a hidden trapdoor sneaker room, KD samples @EasyMoneySniper doesn’t even have anymore and his own 16-pair travel bag for road trips. “If there were no Instagram, if there were no video cameras at games, I would still change shoes and do it every single day like I do,” he said. “It’s part of my life.“ You can check out the full ‘Kick Game Evolution’ video feature & more images on ESPN.com and the ESPN App — or the much easier way via the link in my bio! : @BrandonThibodeaux
Tucker is making the NBA role player fashionable. The high-profile intensity of a series like this Rockets-Warriors one has given him the platform to become legendary for it, and so far he’s taken full advantage.
If he can help take down the back-to-back champs and contribute to the dynasty’s disbandment, Tucker’s hero status will reach its well-deserved peak.