Monday, August 15 2022
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MIAMI — Let’s play a friendly game of P.J. Tucker bingo. If you can find five stereotypical P.J. Tucker-isms in Miami’s 137-95 opening night decimation of the Milwaukee Bucks, you win. We’ll start with the free square. Did Tucker hit a corner 3? Yup. Nailed it with 9:33 remaining in the third quarter. Did he get an offensive rebound? Of course he did. It came off of a missed Max Strus free throw in the first quarter. A quarter later, he drew his obligatory charge on Pat Connaughton

Fine, let’s get a bit tougher. How did Tucker set the tone for the game physically in the opening minutes? Well, only 38 seconds after the opening tip, Tucker committed a brilliant foul on former teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo. It saved two free points and the momentum that would have come with them, sent a weak free-throw shooter to the line and established in less than a minute just how difficult it would be for Milwaukee, mere months after sweeping the Heat, to score against Miami’s revamped defense. The message was received loud and clear. Milwaukee scored three points in the first seven-and-a-half minutes of the game. 

Four out of five ain’t bad, but there’s no way Tucker also dove into the stands for a loose ball despite his team holding a 17-point lead, right? Umm …

“He’s literally like this at every single practice,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra joked after the game. “You have to, like, dial him down.” If it seems excessive, remember, this is the Heat we’re talking about here. No team scours the league for every conceivable advantage quite as thoroughly as they do, and one of their favorite edges is effort. The Heat track fitness and body fat far more closely than most teams in part because health encourages hustle in the dog days of the season. That advantage serves them well almost every season, but in Tucker, they have a player who gives it to them as early as opening night, when seemingly every player should be fresh. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. 

“Seeing him coming off of a championship and also wanting to be in the trenches, wanting to fight, wanting to get that W. Most guys, I feel like would’ve been like, ‘Nah, man, it’s cool, whatever,'” Bam Adebayo said. “but P.J. has that dog mentality, you can definitely see he’s a part of the kennel.”

It’s what makes Tucker’s fit in Miami so seamless, and what makes the Heat such a dangerous sleeper in the Eastern Conference. Any of these descriptors could apply to Adebayo as well. Or Jimmy Butler with his 3 a.m. workouts. Or new point guard Kyle Lowry, frequently the league’s leader in drawn charges. The group is Heat culture incarnate, by no means the best group of players Pat Riley has ever assembled, but nearly unquestionably the one that best exemplifies the identity he has tried to cultivate in Miami. 

The Heat don’t quite measure up to some of the championship favorites in the superstar arms race. Lowry, now 35, missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2014 last season, and Adebayo has still never earned All-NBA honors. But they’ve designed a roster built to make up for it by being a nightmare to play in those less visible ways. They’re going to take more charges than everybody else. They’re going to swipe offensive rebounds off of free throws and out-physical their opponents and dive into the second row when they hardly even need to. Adebayo called him “definitely the biggest reason why we won” for that exact reason. 

“He only had eight points but he had the highest plus-minus (plus-31),” Adebayo added. “To me that shows a lot about his way to impact winning.” Winning was never in doubt on Thursday. The Heat lead 29-5 in less than nine minutes, and as banged up as the Bucks were, there’s still something to be said for beating a defending champion with its Finals MVP healthy by 42 points. That Finals MVP might not have the trophy were it not for those little things from Tucker, who left the Bucks in free agency this offseason. 

The gap between those teams, at that stage, was still vast. Milwaukee swept Miami in the first round of the 2021 postseason. Miami’s championship hopes this time around rest on a bunch of those little things Tucker does adding up for big results, and their opening night thrashing of the Bucks is the first step in that direction. We might not have won our game of P.J. Tucker bingo, but if he and the rest of this team keeps it up, they’re going to win a whole lot more when it’s all said and done.



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