Early in the fourth quarter of the Houston Rockets victory in Game 1 over the Lakers, LeBron James received the ball about fifteen feet away from the basket, isolated against P.J. Tucker. In a vacuum, it was a favorable matchup for the Lakers. James is bigger, quicker, and also one of the greatest players in NBA history. LeBron turned and began to back Tucker down, taking several dribbles, pounding into Tucker with each one. Tucker remained firm, making each inch earned feel momentous until James had found himself just a few feet from the rim. However, he still did not have a solid position from which to shoot and instead of falling away, jumped and tried to fling the ball into the hoop while he was still facing the sideline. It missed and Tucker recovered the rebound.
A few possessions later, Anthony Davis received the ball in almost the exact same situation. He turned to face Tucker, trying to divine a way he could get past him to the basket. Yet every potential angle was immediately cut off by Tucker, who kept repositioning himself as if he could read Davis’ intentions in his eyes. With the shot clock running down, a resigned Davis rose for a jumper that hit nothing and led to a shot clock violation.
P.J. Tucker is not a particularly large man, at least not compared to other NBA players. He stands just 6’5”, a few inches below the league’s average, and almost always finds himself giving up several inches to the post players he is tasked with guarding. Yet while he may not be a big man, he is solid, stout in a way that makes trying to score on him like attempting to move a brick wall with nothing more than one’s bare hands.
While James Harden may be the Rockets’ best player, and Russell Westbrook the team’s combustible engine, Tucker is their linchpin, the one that allows their microball scheme to be possible. His presence is what made the team’s deadline trading of Clint Capela an interesting gamble instead of a foolhardy experiment. Without him, the well-trod adages about size winning out would likely be proven true, but Tucker at least makes it an open question. He can, through a combination of grit and ability, guard even the most talented big men in the league as well as anyone. At times, you can see the frustration and confusion arising on opponent’s faces as they try to back him down in the post and lob in an easy hook over this defender they have half a foot on, but are stymied again and again, unable to get the look they want. He’s both quick enough to stay in front of his man while also being strong enough to keep them from barreling through him.
In theory, recreating what the Rockets have done should be easy: just get a bunch of shooters, space the floor, and let things fly. If this scheme could be successfully implemented so easily, several more teams would be doing so. But smallball does not just consist of putting five versatile players on the floor and failing to play a more traditional center. The Warriors’ Death Lineup would have been an offensive force no matter what -- any time you have Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson on the floor at the same time, you’re going to score points -- though what made it so feared, so unstoppable was not just their ability to effortlessly rack up points, but to frustrate their opponents’ schemes on the other end as well. Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green could guard anybody, with Green being a generational defender whose versatility, skill, and intelligence have not been seen in many other places in league history.
It’s a model that one must have the personnel for. And unfortunately for most teams, a component of that is a type of player that is very hard to find: a floor spacer with the requisite size to keep the team from being destroyed in the paint and on the boards as well as the quickness to switch everything. This player must also be willing to put their body on the line every single night, which is part of why the Warriors tended to employ Draymond at center only in spurts -- it just wasn’t worth paying the toll it took on him. Without a player like this, things are likely to collapse pretty quickly. For the Rockets, Tucker is that key that makes it work not only in theory, but in practice as well.
Tucker is not establishing a new paradigm, but there is still no one else in the NBA like him, and there’s not likely to be many others coming up anytime soon. If the Rockets are able to advance past the Lakers, it likely will not be because of some scoring eruption by Tucker, but it will be because of him enabling the team’s structure to be what it is, his unique skills combining in a way that allows others to flourish as he waits in the corner and, with a combination of brute force and active feet, keeps his opponent from ever getting an easy bucket.