The big money in Toronto this summer will be be going to Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, but if the Raptors really want to win more games, the culture change they need is embodied by P.J. Tucker.
“I’ve been playing against LeBron (James) since we were nine years old,” Tucker said after the Game Four loss to the Cavaliers. “We came out of the same class, so he’s just another guy, another player, someone who plays in this league, plays every night. There is no difference. Just put on your hard hat and go to work.”
While Raptors head coach Dwane Casey suggested the Raptors were a little “wide-eyed” at what James did to them in their second round series, the same couldn’t be said of Tucker and that is the only hope any team in the East has of getting by the King in his extended prime.
“I prefer being physical to being finesse,” Tucker said. “I don’t think I have any finesse in my game at all. The most dirty, rugged, nasty (person) you’ll ever see.”
Tucker was nasty as he put up a double-double 13 points and 11 rebounds in the Raptors Game One loss to the Cavs and a 14 point 12 rebound double-double in Game Four while guarding James about as good as is possible when the King is effortlessly draining the three-ball. Casey had no one else that could even seem to bother James.
As tough as the Cavs are playing with a traditional lineup, when they go ‘small,’ the matchups become nearly impossible. The typical power forward has no chance matching the combination of speed, ball handing, court vision, shooting and size that James brings to the four spot.
“The game was different (when I was drafted,)” Tucker explained. “Everybody played with big Fours. Now everybody goes small ball and in the fourth quarter everybody goes small ball. Nobody keeps two bigs in the fourth quarter any more. Those undersized guys back then, now are – Draymond Green – everybody has those guys now.
“The game has changed to fit me more.”
Tucker was drafted as a 6’5 power forward by Toronto in 2006, but he didn’t make it to the end of his rookie season in the NBA. After five years in Europe the Suns picked up the more mature and skilled combo forward and since then the NBA game has evolved to match what the now 32-year-old is able to provide.
Toronto has what Tucker is looking for as well. At this stage of his career, Tucker knows what he needs to be successful. He is a role player who plays off of stars like Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka.
“I think fit is everything,” Tucker said. “Once you’re a veteran, an older guy, it’s all about fit. The situation, the team, the coaches, you want the total fit, (for) everything to work out.
“Coach Casey is a defensive coach. He likes hard-nosed guys. So those things alone makes us fit. Fit with a coach is everything, especially for a veteran. That’s one of the things that is a priority going into free agency.”
As a veteran free agent, Tucker understands that he isn’t going to be the first guy contacted in July and he doesn’t want to be. Tucker wants to know the situation he is headed into. Who will be on the team and who will be coaching them.
“There are really good guys in this locker room,” Tucker said. “Guys that have fought together, been together. They have added a few pieces like Serge (Ibaka) and I think it’s on the way up. They have the core it takes to be at this level.
“I love playing with both (DeRozan and Lowry). Once you realize how to make it in this league is playing a role, being able to figure out what your role is. How you can effect the game in other ways other than scoring. Then you figure out playing roles is the way to go.
“I look to be a piece going toward something. It’s not just the money. It’s seeing where I fit and feel like I can give this team something to put them over the top. You got to let it play out.”
Tucker had a big impact on the Raptors after he was acquired at the trade deadline and his play in the postseason has cemented that impression. He can be the missing ‘3-and-D’ forward in a Raptors small ball lineup and the big small forward in more traditional five-man units.
President Masai Ujiri was calling for “culture change” after his team was swept out of the postseason by the Cavs, but really he needs to double-down on his original goal of upping the toughness quotient. Tucker’s willingness to shoot the three-ball being the other half of making toughness work in today’s NBA.
“Anytime you get someone who wants to compete, you got to respect that,” James said about Tucker after Game Four. “P.J. has been like that since we was kids. From AAU ball thru high school to Texas and being a part of this league, he has always been a guy that at the end of the day he is going to leave it all out there. As a competitor, I can always respect that.”
Culture change will come by bringing P.J. Tucker to training camp.
Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson