Rockets’ ‘Microball’ Puts P.J. Tucker at the Center of Chaos

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The joke doesn’t have quite the same bite now that the N.B.A. is playing all of its games in a so-called bubble, but it elicited a hearty laugh from P.J. Tucker of the Houston Rockets regardless.

Have you heard the one about how the only center in Houston is the Toyota Center?

“That’s true and false,” Tucker said, chuckling at the reference to his team’s home arena. “But it’s mostly true.”

The Rockets, you see, insist that none of their players have assigned positions, no matter how they are listed in the box score. Tucker has invited onlookers to call him a center — “Label it however you want to,” he said — but he is not even Houston’s tallest starter. Nor does Tucker jump center for the Rockets when the game tips off, typically ceding that duty to the 6-foot-7 Robert Covington.

Tucker is nonetheless often described as the closest thing to a center among the Rockets’ primary players, which owes largely to his physical defense. Yet even when Tucker, who is 6-5, guards someone much bigger, such as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis, he is quick to point out that his offensive responsibilities call for him to “still do everything” asked of smaller forwards.

One clear takeaway amid all these contradictions is that LeBron James and the Lakers have been thrust into a precarious position in the second round of the N.B.A. playoffs because they have to cope with the Rockets’ unconventional approach — with Tucker at the heart of the chaos. Davis’s influence has been growing and the Lakers lead the series, 2-1, but they have been forced to play smaller lineups than they prefer to counter a fleet, floor-spacing front line led by Tucker and Covington.

“Every team needs a P.J. Tucker,” Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr., a former Laker, tweeted Sunday during Game 2 of the Rockets-Lakers series.

Tucker played a starring role defensively in Houston’s Game 1 victory, then overcame foul trouble in Game 2 to register 18 points and 11 rebounds, though the Rockets’ rally fell short. He managed just 3 points Tuesday in a quiet Game 3 performance, shortly after openly disappointed Rockets officials learned that Tucker had not been selected to the N.B.A.’s all-defensive first or second team.

“What we see,” Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni said, “we think he’s the best.”

The Rockets, to use General Manager Daryl Morey’s word, were for years unabashedly “obsessed” with trying to topple the Golden State Warriors, who won three championships in their five consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals from 2015 to 2019. This season, with the Warriors missing Kevin Durant (left in free agency) and the injured guards Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, Morey took even bigger swings than usual in his roster construction. He followed the much-debated trade that dispatched Chris Paul to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook by assembling a four-team trade in February that sent Clint Capela, Houston’s starting center, to Atlanta to acquire Covington from Minnesota. The emphasis on small ball was widely rebranded as “microball.”

Despite the 2-1 series deficit, and fears that Houston’s small lineups are being worn down by James’s and Davis’s offensive gifts and the Lakers’ overall power, Tucker has not wavered in his belief that the Rockets can win the series. As significant a surprise as that would be, it would also not automatically rank as the biggest upset by a Tucker team.

The Toronto Raptors drafted Tucker No. 35 over all in 2006, but he didn’t stick, and headed to Israel for the 2007-8 season. There he led unheralded Hapoel Holon to a stunning victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv, the perennial European club power, for the championship; it was one of only two seasons between 1970 and 2008 that Maccabi failed to win it all domestically.

“To this day, that’s my No. 1 basketball moment,” Tucker said.

It was the start of a five-season odyssey in the international game, with additional stops in Ukraine, Greece, Italy, Puerto Rico and Germany, during which Tucker developed the long-distance shooting touch that makes him one of the N.B.A.’s most productive corner 3-point shooters.

“He used to just bully guys down low,” said Omri Casspi, Israel’s most successful N.B.A. export and a teenager with Maccabi when Tucker was named the most valuable player with Holon. There was “no match” in the league for Tucker physically, Casspi said.

Tucker excitedly recounted how loud the Holon crowds were, calling them the most vociferous fans he has ever played for — “no doubts, hands down, no close seconds.” Yet he said that his current role, as a key two-way contributor for an N.B.A. championship contender, seemed like an unreachable dream for much of his time abroad.

“Back then the league was different,” Tucker said. “Being a ‘tweener’ was terrible. Nobody wanted tweeners. You had to be a wing player that could shoot 3s or a back-to-the-basket big — and if you fell in the middle you didn’t fit. So a lot of times, I was lost.

“Going over there, I learned how to be a team player. I had to grow up. Being the main guy for three or four years, I understood what it took to be the leader. Coming back to the N.B.A., being one of those other guys again, I knew exactly how to do my job.”

Becoming proficient from long distance, to coincide with a leaguewide shift away from traditional centers in favor of power players with more mobility and shooting range, certainly didn’t hurt: Tucker made a league-high 90 corner 3-pointers during the regular season. As D’Antoni noted, Tucker is also the key defender in Houston’s schemes that depend on the frequent switching of individual assignments.

“Now I bask in that whole area of the unknown,” Tucker said. “It’s the most beautiful thing ever.”

At 35, Tucker averaged a career-high 34.3 minutes per game during the regular season. His seemingly boundless determination to collect sneakers tends to generate more media attention than his game — Tucker plans to open his own sneaker store in Houston next month called the Better Generation With P.J. Tucker — but what he covets most is an N.B.A. playoff memory to usurp what he did in Israel.

He continues to agonize over the Rockets’ fate in the 2018 Western Conference finals. Up, 3-2, over the Warriors, Tucker’s Rockets had two shots to eliminate the reigning champions but could not overcome the loss of Paul to a hamstring injury in Game 5. In Game 7, Houston missed a still-unfathomable 27 consecutive 3-pointers and lost at home.

“It’s been frustrating; I won’t lie about that,” Tucker said. “I still haven’t watched Game 6 and Game 7 from two years ago, because we knew that was the championship, whoever won that series. There’s nothing worse than that.”

Yet the stakes for the Rockets seem higher than ever this postseason. D’Antoni’s future is uncertainin the final year of his contract as coach, and Tucker, who will be seeking an extension this off-season, has just one year left on his deal. Questions likewise persist about how Westbrook fits alongside James Harden — and the holes in Harden’s and D’Antoni’s playoff legacies.

All of that tends to generate considerable noise around the Rockets, but Tucker, defiant as ever, said, “We laugh at it.”

“We think it’s hilarious,” Tucker said.

Such material is presumably not as humorous as the Toyota Center crack, but imagine the last laugh Tucker would have, spotting the 6-foot-10 Davis five inches and after all those years abroad, if he led a Houston comeback to take down the West’s No. 1 seed.

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