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NBA Saturday: P.J. Tucker Brings Versatility to Toronto

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In any given season, the top-level teams usually have two or three star players, several key role players and at one least selfless veteran who does whatever is asked of him to make the team better. We tend to call this sort of player a “Glue Guy.” Players like Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, Shane Battier and more recently, guys like Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, Luc Mbah a Moute and Draymond Green (who is a star player but does anything asked of him to make his team better) all would fit in this category.

The Toronto Raptors’ defense has been struggling throughout this season and was in need of a boost. General manager Masai Ujiri, one of the best front office executives in the NBA, traded swingman Terrence Ross this year’s first-round pick to the Orlando Magic for Serge Ibaka. The trade made perfect sense for Toronto. Ibaka, though not quite the player he used to be, is a tough defensive player who can effectively play both at power forward and center and spread the court with his shooting.

Ujiri could have been satisfied with this trade and closed up shop before the trade deadline. Instead, Ujiri subsequently agreed to send forward Jared Sullinger and two second-round draft picks to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for P.J. Tucker — a player who is well-suited to become Toronto’s Glue Guy.

Tucker started his NBA career in Toronto after the Raptors selected him with the 35th pick in the 2006 NBA draft. Tucker played in just 17 games for Toronto in his rookie season and then ended up playing overseas for several seasons before landing with the Phoenix Suns in 2012.

“Phoenix has changed my life, a lot of people here, a lot of fans,” Tucker said after hearing about the trade. “I couldn’t ask for a better place, better people or a (better) organization. It’s been my family for the last five, six years.”

Tucker was Phoenix’s best defensive player and often set the tone for the team with his aggressive style of play. Tucker has worked hard over the years and has developed into an effective two-way player that can do a little bit of everything on the court, which was apparent in his debut performance with Toronto.

Knocking down a corner three-pointer, hounding Jaylen Brown on the perimeter, setting a solid screen to free Cory Joseph up for a big layup in the fourth quarter, grabbing 10 rebounds and generating three steals — these are just some of the things Tucker provided on Friday night for the Raptors against the Boston Celtics.

“P.J. Tucker got them going,” Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas said. “That’s what he does. He’s the definition of a tough guy.”

Down four points with less than six minutes left in the game, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey decided to go with a lineup that may be the new closing unit for Toronto — Cory Joseph (standing in for an injured Kyle Lowry), DeMar DeRozan, P.J. Tucker, DeMarre Carroll and Serge Ibaka.

This lineup’s defensive versatility and ability to space the floor proved to be the difference as the Raptors went on to beat the Celtics by a final score of 107-97. The Raptors made three-pointers, some tough mid-range jumpers and, most importantly, played an aggressive brand of defense that bogged down the Celtics. One game is admittedly a tiny sample size and we shouldn’t draw any major conclusions from the Raptors’ victory over the Celtics, but the early returns for Ujiri are promising.

Despite Toronto’s significant acquisitions, the Cleveland Cavaliers are still the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference. They have struggled with various issues this season, but so long as LeBron James is relatively healthy and the rest of the roster is playing at its usual level in the playoffs, they are the team to beat in the East. Adding Ibaka and Tucker may not change that, but it gives Toronto a better chance of upsetting Cleveland in a seven-game series.

Tucker will likely have a huge role to play in any head-to-head competition with Cleveland. He is only 6-foot-6, but is very strong, light on his feet and is able to check opponents on the perimeter and hold his own against bigger players in the post. No single player can stop LeBron, but Tucker is one of the few players in the league with the strength and mobility to make things a bit more difficult than usual.

DeRozan can attest to this as he has been guarded by Tucker frequently whenever the Raptors have played the Suns in recent seasons.

“The crazy thing is, people used to always ask me who was the three toughest players that guarded me the best,” DeRozan said. “I always put P.J. in there first. It’s funny when I seen the trade yesterday. I’m glad I ain’t have to deal with that.”

Shane Battier, one of the best Glue Guys to have played in the NBA over the last decade and who retired in 2014, defined what a Glue Guy is in an article for The Players’ Tribune:

GLUE GUY

  1. A player who makes everything just work when they’re on the court.
  2. Someone often responsible for organizing fantasy football leagues, team outings and resolving internal disputes.
  3. Often relied on to do the things nobody notices to help win games.
[See also: Utility, Desire, Rings]

Tucker may not be the guy to setup a fantasy football league for the team, but he is a player that makes everything work even just a little bit better on the court and is always looking to do the dirty work that other players shy away from. He brings both utility and a desire to compete at the highest level to Toronto, which could make all the difference for a team that needed a significant boost on defense. He now has the chance to be the Glue Guy for a team with championship aspirations. If Friday night’s performance was any indication, it looks like Tucker is up for the challenge.

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About Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.