Forward P.J. Tucker doesn’t normally put the most points on the board for the Phoenix Suns, but he’s indispensable in plenty of other facets. Tucker earned his 10th double-double on the season Friday night in Boston, scoring 11 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, and the Suns defeated the Boston Celtics 87-80 to halt a three game losing skid and start muscling themselves back into playoff contention. After an embarrassing home loss Wednesday night to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Suns found themselves two games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the NBA Western Conference standings after dropping seven of their last 10. Tucker’s absence from Wednesday’s lineup was felt, as the Suns put up little defensive effort against one of the league’s worst teams and were pummeled on the boards by a 51-36 margin.
Friday night at the TD Garden was a different story. Tucker returned to the starting lineup after serving a controversial one-game suspension for allegedly elbowing Blake Griffin in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers earlier in the week. Defense and rebounding, two areas where the Suns sputtered in Wednesday’s loss, are Tucker’s strongest. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that there was a colossal chasm in the Suns’ lineup when Tucker sat out.
With Tucker back in action Friday, the Suns kicked off a brief eastern road trip (which also includes visits to the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets) on a winning note. Not only was Tucker the force on the boards his team sorely needed, he also gave the Celtics fits on defense, forcing seven turnovers. He finished the game at a +10 player-efficiency ratio, higher than the Suns’ overall margin of victory, meaning that the Suns were especially effective at both ends of the hardwood with Tucker on the playing floor. Tucker’s player-efficiency rating on the season is now at +10.03 even though he averages only 9.4 points per contest, which means he makes a difference for his team in a plethora of other ways, specifically defense and rebounding, and he proved that in Friday night’s much needed win.
Players like Tucker also generate momentum, something not quantifiable for inclusion in a game’s final box score. Strong defensive stops and hard fought rebounds at the right time are two of Tucker’s specialties, and this was plain as day when the Suns slogged and stumbled through a game against a weak opponent with Tucker out. He plays just as crucial a role, if not more so, than his teammates who light up the scoreboard far more frequently. After all, it’s tough to outscore opponents if a team merely trades baskets with those opponents while affording them second and third chances. Even the highest scoring players need teammates to set up opportunities by crashing the boards and forcing turnovers. Those are services Tucker is pleased to offer every night, and while many of his most valuable contributions don’t show up in the final box score, they will propel the Suns back into playoff contention if they continue.