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April 16, 2023

The P.J. Tucker we've been waiting for finally arrived for Sixers in Game 1

All season long, Philadelphia's brain trust and best players have been pushing away questions about P.J. Tucker's performance, noting that the veteran forward is more valuable than most people seem to realize. Appreciate his defense, they said. Just wait for the playoffs, they said. In the meantime, we had to ponder whether Tucker even deserved to play late in games, with Doc Rivers often stapling him to the bench in second halves.

It only took one game of playoff basketball for those season-long reassurances to look prophetic. Oh year, that's the guy they thought was worth $10+ million a year in his late 30s.

"That's what we brought him here for," James Harden said Saturday. "The extra possessions, shot-making in the corners, his defense, that's the reason why he's on our team, you know what I mean?"

Tucker was all over the stat sheet despite taking only six shots in the Game 1 win — six points, seven rebounds (five offensive), two assists, and five steals across 25 minutes of action. So often, we've had to try to oversell what Tucker brings beyond the box score, but someone could have skipped the game entirely and figured out how good Tucker was in this one.

Much of Tucker's success in Saturday's Game 1 was a result of Brooklyn's strategy to slow down Joel Embiid. With a small frontline and little hope to stop him otherwise, Brooklyn essentially auto-doubled Embiid all night long, barely allowing him to catch passes before swarming him at either elbow. Though doubles can still disrupt Embiid and the Sixers from time to time, Brooklyn's style of instant pressure only seemed to simplify things for a guy who has seen double coverage for most of the last three seasons.

Committing bodies toward Embiid in the middle of the floor comes with a cost elsewhere, as Tucker noted himself following Saturday's game. 

"If they're going to double, the glass is open," Tucker told reporters in the locker room on Saturday. "You got to be aggressive. That's one of the faults of doubling, not being able to rebound out of it... so getting those extra possessions, it's going to be games where we're going to need them when we're not scoring as well. Getting extra shots at the basket changes the game."

It certainly changed the game on Saturday. Brooklyn turned in one of the best shooting performances in a loss in playoff history, making nearly 56 percent of their shots and almost 45 percent of their threes. The Sixers had a big night from deep of their own, but the largest discrepancy between the two teams was the gap in possessions. Philadelphia got 19 more shot attempts up than Brooklyn did by winning the offensive rebound (14-5) and turnover (19-8) battles by large margins.

While Tucker credited doubles on Embiid for part of his success — and I'm not inclined to argue with the guy who has made a living out of doing this stuff — some of the extra possessions he created were about nothing more than willpower. We're used to seeing the Sixers stand around and get beaten to balls by younger, hungrier teams on the offensive glass, but Tucker helped to flip the script on Saturday afternoon, piercing weak Nets box-outs like a hot knife through butter.

The Sixers had a front-row seat to the Tucker experience last May, when the veteran forward was killing them as the enemy for the Miami Heat. Tucker's play inspired a very pointed rant from Embiid in the aftermath of that second-round loss, and Embiid's desire to get Tucker on the roster played a huge role in signing him. Creating those second chances is valuable enough on its own, but just as valuable is the soul-crushing effect it has on your opponent when someone like Tucker is flying around, popping up when you least expect it to ruin your day.

Tucker's relentlessness in the locker room is another critical piece of his value to the Sixers. Coaches on the Sixers' staff were careful to note throughout the regular season that they couldn't rely on Tucker's voice too much, as it would risk teammates tuning him out and not grasping his message when it mattered most. But his tell-it-like-it-is approach has clearly worked for a team that has lacked accountability in the recent past.

One target of his scorn on Saturday was Paul Reed, who excelled in the backup role behind Embiid that he has made his own down the stretch. The Sixers had won Reed's minutes in the first half, which many around Philadelphia would have taken and run with, but the veteran forward was not satisfied with his effort and told him as much at halftime.

"I cussed Paul Reed out at halftime. I felt like he didn't have the energy," Tucker said. "He wasn't being there on time and doing a lot of things, and he came on in the second half and responded. So I told everybody 'I'll curse Paul out every halftime' because he got a lot of rebounds. His energy was good. He was in help, he had good switches, finishes, he was just night and day. We need him and I'm always staying on him because we really need him."

Reed's second-half minutes, naturally, were one of the stories of the game. Philadelphia effectively put the game to rest with a Reed shift to open the fourth quarter, with Reed scoring a quick seven points and pulling down a pair of offensive rebounds that must have made Tucker proud. 

Looking at this series from 1000 yards up, it doesn't look like a matchup where Tucker should be expected to have an outsized influence. Brooklyn is young, long, and athletic, ostensibly able to prevent Tucker from making the hustle plays that swing games and have defined his career.

But perhaps that's why those plays have defined his career. The Sixers told us they were never worried about what Tucker had to offer in these moments. Perhaps we all should have listened.

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