Midway through the second period of their Eastern Conference Finals opener against the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat were in a bad way. Jayson Tatum was seemingly on his way to a 40-point night, Robert Williams had dominated down low and the Beantowners were getting to the basket with ease.
Then, injury was added to insult when Heat forward PJ Tucker rolled his right ankle while trying to defend the Cs’ Jaylen Brown.
The former was retreating from the foul line to the backcourt when Tucker sought to give chase. Upon planting his foot in an effort to halt his forward progress and stay glued to Brown, it became clear that something had happened.
In short order, Tucker was hobbling back to the locker room and there was real concern about his ability to return. That’s exactly what he ended up doing, though.
When the second half began, the 37-year-old was on the court with the rest of the club’s starting five and the Heat went on to secure a 118-107 win to go up 1-0 on the Celtics. After the game Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made it clear that Tucker wasn’t willing to sit out under any circumstances.
Coach Spo Sings Tucker’s Praises
As Spoelstra tells it, Tucker didn’t even give him the opportunity to make a change during the break. The baller was intent on doing whatever he could on the court to help right the ship and he wasted no time in letting his coach know as much.
“By the time that I had walked into the locker room [for halftime], he looked at me — dead in the eye — and said, ‘Don’t even think about it. I’m playing in the second half,'” Spoelstra recounted after the contest. “I wasn’t questioning it, but you know…”
Tucker finished with five points, six rebounds, three assists and a steal. Meanwhile, the Heat were plus-12 when he was on the floor. But as Spoelstra pointed out postgame, his impact goes well beyond the counting stats.
“What he does doesn’t really get noticed by everybody out there because — I don’t even know what his stat line was — but, you’re talking about one of the toughest covers, and then when he’s on the weak side he does all the right things. He’s like a great linebacker. He just gets everybody organized.”
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‘Heartbeat’ of the Team
Clearly, the Heat will go as far as players like Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo take them this postseason. They may have become one of the deeper teams in the league — and one with multiple stars — but those two players are the cornerstones. However, Spoelstra made it clear that Tucker’s presence drives the club in a similar vein.
“I feel like I’ve said this about a bunch of our guys, you know… the ‘heartbeat’ of our team. Because Bam is, obviously Jimmy is, but Tuck for sure is,” Spoelstra said.
Tucker and the Heat will be back in action on Thursday for Game 2 against the Celtics at FTX Arena. Tip-off is at 8:30 p.m. ET.