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

Dwane Casey and the Toronto Raptors got the help they needed before the 2017 NBA trade deadline.

Jesse Blancarte

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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.

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

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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience

It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.

Spencer Davies

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Four-and-a-half months into the first season of his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell has accomplished some incredible things.

He won back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors between this past December and January. He leads his class with 19.6 points per game and nearly 17 field goal attempts per contest. Due much in part to his contributions, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game winning streak after falling far below the .500 mark.

To top all that off, he won the slam-dunk competition just a few days ago in an event for the whole world to see. All of this has been nothing short of amazing for the 21-year-old, and even he didn’t see this coming.

“This whole thing’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend of his first-year experience. “Just enjoying the process. There are games where I’m just like, ‘Wow this happened’ or ‘Wow that happened’ and it’s a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization for believing in me.

“Without them, none of this would be possible, so I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”

Believe it or not, Mitchell wasn’t always so sure about where his life would go. He played for a couple of seasons at Louisville and ended up declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, a night where the Jazz stole him away from every other team by executing a deal with the Denver Nuggets to land the 13th overall pick in Salt Lake City.

“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend. “After two years of college, being here for All-Star and even being in the NBA wasn’t entirely my plan, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, praising God for this opportunity he’s given me.”

So far, Mitchell is picking things up on the go. As he keeps improving and solidifying his game on the court, he’s also bettering himself mentally.

“If I just continue to be humble and continue to learn, that’s the biggest thing is learning and understanding the game,” Mitchell said. “I make the joke that it’s easy to study film and watch all the games when you don’t have five classes to study for throughout the day. So it’s been fun and I’m just taking it day by day.”

It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing what he’s doing with friends by his side. Most of us think of this class of rookies as a special group because of their talents as players, but it’s a tight-knit inner circle of friends who are enjoying every second of life in the NBA together.

Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. are friends Mitchell mentioned that he’s been close with for a while, and to see all of their hard work culminate so quickly at the Rising Stars game in Los Angeles is something special.

“I’ve known a lot of these guys, pretty much everybody on this team since high school for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Kinda hanging the same way we did in high school just a lot more cameras, a lot more downtime, bigger city.

“It’s fun. Just gotta treat it like it’s fun, go out there and just be kids. Live a dream of ours since we were younger.”

After the weekend he had, Mitchell accomplished that goal.

Whether the next chapter in his career has a Rookie of the Year award written into it or not, we’re seeing spectacular things from the one they call “Spida.”

And it’s about time people are taking notice.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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