MIAMI — Many NBA players go through the stages when it comes to boxing for free throw rebounds, and no one can really blame them. Most free throws, almost 80% of them, are successful. So why bother boxing?
And then there’s Miami’s PJ Tucker, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound wrecking ball who spent his career disguised as a power forward. Consider Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday night, as Heat teammate Gabe Vincent lined up for the second of two free throws. Tucker took advantage of that window to throw most of his body weight into the midsection of Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics.
It was a bit much. One of the referees advised Tucker to cool him down, which he didn’t like. But that wasn’t going to stop Tucker from playing the only way he knew how to play – hard – and his tenacity was one of the reasons the Heat were able to run away with a 118-107 Game 1 win. from the Serie.
“He inspires everybody,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, adding, “He’s like a great linebacker. He organizes everybody and he communicates so well.
In a game that Jimmy Butler, as usual, dominated for Miami, finishing with 41 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists, Tucker posted a heap of indescribable numbers. He had 5 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. He shot 2 of 5 from the field and missed both of his free throws. He trudged through the pitch like a dump truck with a flat tire after rolling his right ankle in the first half.
But its impact was enormous. After Tatum scored 21 points to lead the Celtics to an 8-point halftime lead, Tucker – bad wheel and all – was able to lay hold of Tatum for long stretches of the second half, the helping to limit him to 1-for-7 shooting and 8-pointing the rest of the way.
“What he’s doing isn’t really noticed by everyone,” Spoelstra said of Tucker. “I don’t have my glasses on so I don’t even know what his stat line was. But you’re talking about one of the toughest covers. And then when he’s on the weak side he does all the right things .
The Heat led the Celtics by 12 points in Tucker’s 31 minutes. They won by 11.
“I didn’t know I would fall in love with a basketball player as much as PJ,” Butler said. “He has the tough job every night of guarding the best player in the opposing team and then he goes down there and shoots the ball five times. You have to respect that.
The Celtics were outnumbered – and short on rest. Their conference semifinal streak with the Milwaukee Bucks lasted seven games before they could qualify on Sunday.
As if that wasn’t tough enough, they lost two starters in their opener against the Heat: Marcus Smart, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, was sidelined with a sprain to the right foot, and Al Horford entered the league’s coronavirus health and safety. protocols Tuesday afternoon.
The Heat had been off since Thursday. They weathered a rusty start against the Celtics, missing their first seven field goal attempts. Tucker was upset.
“It took us a long time to get aggressive,” he said. “We were way too soft, and they got pretty much whatever they wanted.”
At 37, Tucker is the proud protagonist of one of basketball’s best-known odysseys. He joined the Toronto Raptors for the 2006-07 season as a second-round draft pick from the University of Texas. But after playing sparingly for the Raptors, he spent the next five seasons playing in Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Germany, honing his game along the way.
By the time he signed with the Phoenix Suns before the 2012-13 season, he had proven he could do a bit of everything: defend, rebound, facilitate and even score when the opportunity presented itself. An invaluable defenseman, he won an NBA championship last season after the Bucks picked him near the trade deadline.
At this late stage, Tucker is closer to the end of his playing days than the beginning, and the wear and tear on his profession was clear in Tuesday’s game. After rolling his ankle in the second quarter, he hobbled to the locker room. His return appeared in doubt.
But Tucker swapped his shoes – one of the most prodigious sneakerheads in the league, he has hundreds of pairs to choose from – and invoked divine intervention.
“There’s a genius out there,” Tucker said. “Took one of my wishes.”
Spoelstra recalled checking Tucker’s availability for the second half.
“He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Don’t even think about it. I’m playing in the second half,'” Spoelstra said. didn’t even question.’ ”
As he played through the pain, Tucker seemed to vent his anguish on Tatum, one of the playoffs’ emerging young stars. Tucker was like the old man in the neighborhood park: hobbled but wise, an unwaveringly annoying presence. The Celtics shot 2 of 15 from the field in the third quarter as the Heat outscored them, 39-14. But again: Tucker saw room for improvement.
“What took us so long?” ” He asked.
He sank his only 3-pointer in the fourth quarter and seized the moment by raising his arms to the crowd. It was a rare chance for him to bathe in the spotlight, but his teammates understand his value.
At the final buzzer, Butler kissed her.
“He does all the little things,” Butler said.