Forward P.J. Tucker of the Rockets is not particularly big. Sure, he is 6-5 but for a guy who is being asked to play center in the NBA, Tucker sometimes resembles a fire hydrant guarding a telephone. For the Lakers, that telephone pole will be star forward Anthony Davis, who enters the NBA conference semifinals on a roll after he posted a dud in L.A.’s playoff opener.
He was 8-for-24 shooting in that game. Since then, Davis averaged 30.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists as the Lakers won four straight. He shot 66.2% from the field in those games, and 53.8% from the 3-point line. He is, no doubt, a fearsome assignment for Tucker.
And yet Tucker seems to be a type of kryptonite for Davis. As NBA analyst Tom Haberstroh points out, Davis had a tougher time in two games against Tucker than any other defender this year. On a 100-possession basis, the Lakers score only 66.8 points when Tucker is guarding Davis, a paltry amount.
lol Anthony Davis' best defender, at least statistically, this season is literally PJ Tucker
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) September 3, 2020
Rockets’ P.J. Tucker Guards Anthony Davis Often
Now, the sample size is small on those numbers. It was only two games, and the time and number of possessions Davis was guarded by Tucker was limited—9:58 total and almost 39 possessions. Davis was good in the two games he played against Houston, scoring 24.5 points with 12.5 rebounds, making 65.5% of his shots.
But Tucker does give Davis trouble. That was the case last year, too, when he was in New Orleans. In three games that the Rockets played the Pelicans, Davis was just 1-for-3 shooting against Tucker and the Pelicans scored only 3 points in 4 ½ minutes, covering 16.3 possessions. In his last two games against Houston last season, Davis scored 22 points on 6-for-13 shooting and 12 points on 6-for-14 shooting.
You might think that Tucker’s matchup against Davis is another fluke of the Rockets’ small-ball style, in which they essentially play without a center. The Rockets have always leaned on their smaller lineups but became fully committed to them in February, when they traded away center Clint Capela and brought in another wing, Robert Covington, in his place.
But Tucker, despite giving up five inches to Davis, guarded him long before the Rockets went with small-ball.
“For me it’s the same,” Tucker said during Thursday’s practice press conference. “Everybody always makes a big deal about the small lineup. I’ve guarded Anthony Davis every time I have played him since he first came into the league with New Orleans. So there is no difference, it really doesn’t matter. Whether it’s 3, 4, 5, the matchup is the same. Like I said, it is all going to come down to staying on principles.”
Tucker WIll Guard LeBron James, Too
Tucker is Houston’s best defensive player and Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni joked the team would be relying more heavily than usual on Tucker to handle L.A.’s two stars—Davis and LeBron James. “PJ’s gonna guard both,” D’Antoni said. “‘P’ will be on Davis and the ‘J’ will be on LeBron.”
Well, not quite. But with Rockets’ propensity to switch constantly on defense—one of the advantages of a small lineup—Tucker does figure to get his share of possessions defending James as well as Davis.
That, for the record, did not go so well for the Rockets. In 24 possessions over 5:20, the Lakers scored 28 points on the Rockets with Tucker guarding Davis. Expect to see Tucker glued to Davis as much as possible, an odd role for a guy who is 6-5 and one he would never have thought he would be filling.
“You just become a chameleon, figure it out,” Tucker said. “You get in certain situations at certain times in the league where people play in certain ways. Time shifts, the game shifts and you never know what happens so you stick with it. It’s one of those situations you become adapted to every style and you figure it out. If you told me I would be playing center for the Rockets three years ago, I would probably have laughed at you. It happens. You keep moving and figure it out.”
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