The young Phoenix Suns have quickly become notorious for blowing big leads over the last few weeks. With one game remaining of their franchise-record eight-game home stand, the Suns somehow stand at 5-2 after blowing double-digit advantages against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards.
And yet, even as the third youngest team in the association, they’ve still won all five of those contests, should never have even been close. It’s a good thing they have a locker room leader like P.J. Tucker to help when double-digit advantages shrink down to single digits (or even turn into deficits).
The 27-year-old Tucker rarely stands out in the stat column. He’s averaging 7.8 points and 5.9 rebounds per game this season, shooting 45.3 percent from the floor and 36.2 percent from three-point range. His Player Efficiency Rating (12.5) is well below the league average (15.0).
Not exactly an All-Star, right?
But numbers have never been what’s impressive about Tucker, even when he averaged 9.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season — both career highs — for a surprising Suns team that won 48 games and fell one game shy of the postseason.
Even though his numbers are down this year, and even though he’ll rarely stand out in the box score, Tucker’s value as this team’s starting small forward shines through when the fourth quarter rolls around.
Despite being one of the NBA’s highest-scoring fourth quarter teams, the Suns have had problems keeping opponents at bay after building leads. Last night against Washington, after leading by as many as 22, the Suns found themselves up by only four with seven minutes to play.
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But even with the Wizards gaining all the momentum and threatening to pull off the come-from-behind victory, the Suns managed to outscore Washington by four the rest of the way. Tucker only scored four of Phoenix’s remaining 15 points in that span, but his do-it-all hustle plays were what made the difference.
Tucker finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds on the night, but four of those points came in the last 6:13 and four of those rebounds came in the last 2:14. When the Suns needed a board late in the fourth quarter to close out stops, it was Tucker who provided them.
Amazingly, 2.0 of Tucker’s 5.9 rebounds per game come in the fourth quarter on the season. Last night, he closed out good defensive possessions for the Suns with a defensive rebound three times, but he also got a huge offensive rebound with 1:10 left in the game and Phoenix up by four, which allowed the Suns to burn another 18 seconds off the clock.
That underrated play didn’t lead to a basket, but its significance was not lost on Suns Twitter:
It’s also worth noting that while people may remember the silly turnover Tucker had with five seconds left to play when he dribbled out of bounds, 10 of his 12 points came in the fourth quarter, including back-to-back threes to open the quarter that extended Phoenix’s lead to 18.
“”Yeah, P.J. doesn’t get a lot of stuff, a lot of opportunities, but late in the games, he really gets tuned in and that’s where teams really focus on maybe our other guys and P.J. can get some kick outs,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said.
“He drilled two big threes to extend the lead back out there, and then P.J. does what he usually does — gets big rebounds at the end of games.”
Still not convinced? In Phoenix’s prior win against the Blazers, Tucker only scored five points, but he finished with a team-high 13 rebounds, including six in the fourth quarter.
” You know P.J., he’s one of the best energy players in the league,” Eric Bledsoe said. “He helps us tremendously in getting the extra plays for us.”
Still not convinced? How about the offensive rebound he got against the Cleveland Cavaliers with 26 seconds left and the Suns up by three, which forced the Cavs to foul and allowed him to ice the game with free throws? These examples are just from the last seven games.
We could talk about the advanced numbers, like how Tucker is holding his opponents to 41.4 percent shooting on the season, per NBA.com. We could dive in to his competitive fire or mention that he’s the team’s second best rebounder. But the intangibles Tucker provides don’t really show up on the stat sheet, even if they’re readily apparent on the court.
With this young Suns teams squandering leads, Tucker’s been the guy who does the unnoticed things to pick up some of the pieces. He’s not perfect by any means, but his grittiness and determination when the game is on the line represent the exact kind of mentality this young team needs to adopt as it continues to grow together.
“I know we need to win games, I know what it takes,” Tucker said. “We got guys that can shoot the ball, that can finish at the basket, so getting those extra possessions, getting offensive rebounds when teams fall asleep, we want to be the best conditioned team in the league so going to the glass every single time….it’s the little stuff that wins games.”
The point guard hydra lineups are fun but when the Suns need those “little things,” it’s been P.J. Tucker supplying them.