Sixers banking on ‘Playoff PJ’ Tucker to deliver trademark toughness

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76ers, PJ Tucker
San Antonio Spurs guard Devin Vassell (24) and Philadelphia 76ers forward P.J. Tucker (17) reach for the ball in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)

Philadelphia 76ers fans have heard a lot about “Playoff PJ” over the course of the 82-game slog of a season. His nearly $11 million salary has been a talking point, one that drew uninspired looks every time Tucker bricked a corner triple or got boxed out on a rebound.

Well, the postseason is officially here, and it’s time for the one-time champion to show everyone why he’s worth every penny. The Sixers saw it first-hand during last year’s playoffs when Tucker came to town wearing a Miami Heat jersey. He stifled James Harden defensively while averaging 8.2 points per game in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

He hit the deck for every loose ball. He instigated momentum-changing fights. And he lived in the dirty corners, lurking for caromed shots to rebound and open three-pointers to swish. “Playoff PJ” made his presence felt in every aspect, something Heat coach Erik Spoelstra watched like a beaming parent as Miami ousted Philly in six games.

So, what makes Tucker so good? And what can Sixers fans expect to see out of Playoff PJ?

What Tucker brings to the Sixers

“Similar to a regular season PJ. Tuck is about all the right things, a competitive warrior; he does all the little things that players aren’t willing to do in this league,” Spoelstra said. “He’s willing to sacrifice his body. He defends. He’ll take on any challenge: set screens, space the floor … He doesn’t need to have the ball in his hands to be effective, so a lot of those winning intangibles and plays.”

PJ Tucker: Postseason Warrior, Championship Winner

November 18, 2022, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA: NBA – Sixers v Bucks T.J. Tucker (17 Sixers) passing the ball during the National Basketball Association game between Philadelphia Sixers and Milwaukee Bucks at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Sport Press Photo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire) ****NO AGENTS—NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA SALES ONLY****

Tucker’s postseason numbers aren’t going to wow anyone who just scans box scores. His averages jump ever so slightly when the lights get brighter, up from 6.8 points per game in the regular season to 7.3 points. Rebounds go from 5.5 to 6.0. His three-point shooting rises up across the board: 3.7 attempts, 40.7% versus 2.8 attempts, 36.6%.

Again, it was never about Tucker filling up the stat sheet. Joel Embiid went out of his way to call out the 37-year-old’s toughness and grit following the Sixers’ 99-90 loss in Game 6. He openly lobbied the front office to sign him. And they did.

“You look at someone like P.J. Tucker. Great player, but it’s not about him knocking down shots,” Embiid told reporters on May 12. “It’s about what he does, whether it’s on the defensive end or rebounding the ball. You look at, obviously, defensively; he plays with so much energy, believes that he can get from point A to point B, and he believes that no one can beat him. And he’s tough. He’s just physical, and he’s tough.”

Tucker can score in spurts when he wants to. He anchored himself at the corner after Tuesday’s practice and swished shot after shot. He isn’t going to be the first option offensively, but he can drain them if defenders leave him open.

He proved it the other night against Boston by sinking three timely triples, all in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter. His final dagger tickled the twine with 53.3 seconds remaining and put the Sixers up 101-95.

“He’s been in big moments,” Doc Rivers said. “He’s gonna shoot it.”

Embiid added: “We don’t win that game without him.”

Fast forward to the playoffs. This is the time of year when Tucker transitions into “Playoff PJ.” He’s a mean-spirited Santa Claus of sorts looking to shove trophies down chimneys. Tyrese Maxey, speaking after Tuesday’s practice as the highlight reel of Tucker’s postseason flooded his memory bank, recalled a player who inspired hatred in those not wearing the same color uniform.

“I remember last year just playing against him,” Maxey said. “I literally just told him that, like, ‘I couldn’t stand you last year, now I’m glad you’re with us.'”