PHOENIX – When the Suns lost to the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 4, forward P.J. Tucker seemed to take it personally. One of the last Phoenix players to leave the locker room as the media members worked to make their deadlines, he looked more perturbed than normal after a loss – and Tucker is usually quite visibly bothered by losing.
Tucker showed an added pep to his stingy defense in the next game against the Houston Rockets and the Phoenix forward has played with a heightened urgency in the five games since. He’s averaged 13.2 points, 10 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game during that span.
Jeff Hornacek wants to keep word of Tucker’s impact silenced.
“Shhhhh,” he whispered following Tucker’s 10-point, 11-rebound, six-assist performance in a Wednesday win against the Boston Celtics. “I don’t want anybody to go after him when he’s a free agent.”
It’s wishful thinking.
Inevitably, teams will come after Tucker and hard when his minimum contract comes to an end after the 2013-14 season. He’s likely going to garner more than the $1.1 million qualifying offer that the Suns can extend his way. His greatly-improved offensive game could make him an ideal mid-level exception signee for a winning team, something like Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen signing a four-year, $20 million contract extension this past summer.
Salary-strapped squads like Miami, Brooklyn, Chicago or the Los Angeles Clippers would love to add Tucker as a lockdown defender and corner-pocket specialist on offense.
Tucker is no longer the guy that even smart NBA fans saw as the random piece in Phoenix’s starting lineup. The NBA front office knows him as well, having handed the forward a flopping warning and then a $5,000 flopping fine in consecutive games against Miami and Denver.
The good news is that when July hits, the most-important piece after Eric Bledsoe’s restricted free agency plays out will have the Suns’ ears.
Likewise, they’ll have his.
General manager Ryan McDonough told Suns.com’s Greg Esposito that in attempting to relay the bad news about Tucker’s flopping fine on Wednesday, he found out just how much Phoenix’s starting small forward wants to stay in Phoenix.
“I called P.J. and went to voicemail and didn’t leave a message,” McDonough said after the trade deadline passed. “P.J. Called me back … And I noticed P.J. was a little short of breath, breathing a little heavy. The light went on in my head. I said, ‘P.J., we’re not trading you. That’s not what this call’s about.’ Then he said, ‘Ah, thank goodness, man. I love it here. I was so nervous.’
“I don’t think anybody’s been happier to be fined.”
Call the dip into to Tucker’s checkbook his public entrance into the league as a pesky, annoying presence who really does symbolize the Suns’ underdog mentality. After all, Tucker’s so-called flops – he’s not buying it – did earn fouls on LeBron James and Kenneth Faried.
After clearing up the call with McDonough, Tucker played a large role in turning a lackluster second-half start around, even if he did pick up late fouls to give the Celtics life. Tucker also nearly picked up a technical for arguing his sixth foul.
It was that fire that Phoenix covets more than the numbers, but those were nice, too.
“He was making fun in the locker room, he got six fouls because he’s not getting fined again for flopping,” said point guard Goran Dragic. “So from now on, he’s going to foul the guy.”
The little-known Lance Blanks reclamation project joined the Suns after impressing then-Summer League head coach Dan Majerle two summers ago. Majerle said at the time that Tucker, who seems set on earning his second Dan Majerle Hustle Award this year, was after his heart. On a team floundering at the end of the Blanks era, he and Dragic were the two constants, the two who clearly weren’t quitting despite the losses adding up.
Tucker surprised by volunteering with the Morris twins to play for Hornacek in the 2013 Summer League, and that’s where the grit and identity of the Suns began to be built.
Now, with Phoenix being chased by a number of teams to cling to a playoff spot, Tucker sees himself as the motor that needs to produce.
“I feel like I gotta make plays, easy plays, assists, taking shots I need to take, and definitely be on the boards,” Tucker said. “Now, I’m just trying to take it to another level in the second half of the season. We’ve got to.”
And after whatever this season brings for the Suns, it’ll be on McDonough to gauge Tucker’s value and attempt to keep him in purple and orange. Like it was when Phoenix and Blanks signed the forward despite his Summer League averages of 5.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, Tucker’s statistics won’t do his impact justice.