MIAMI -- There’s nobody on the Miami Heat roster that knows Philadelphia guard James Harden better than P.J. Tucker.
They got further acquainted in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Tucker set the tone of the night for Miami by playing full-court defense against his former Houston teammate, then kept doing more and more dirty work in his 28 minutes. His final numbers — 10 points and seven rebounds — didn’t come remotely close to completely measuring the impact he made in a 106-92 win for the Heat over the 76ers on Monday night.
“It’s what I do,” said Tucker, a big part of Milwaukee's run to an NBA title last season and now someone trying to win another ring with Miami. “Just trying to change the game, affect the game without scoring, figuring out a way to win the game. That’s it.”
Sounds simple. It isn’t.
Tucker was the ringleader of a defensive corps that held Harden to a 5-for-13 shooting night from the field, 1 for 4 in the second half, hardly the numbers that Philadelphia probably needs him to have while the injured MVP finalist and league scoring champion Joel Embiid is sidelined. Harden finished with 16 points, four after halftime.
“It’s not about James,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s about all of them. We’re a team and we just have to play as a team. James can score more. We’ve got to get him in better spots. ... It’s not just one guy who’s going to take up the slack from Joel.”
Harden acknowledged after Game 1 that he can be more aggressive.
What he didn’t say was that Tucker made that task seem quite difficult Monday night.
“P.J. is P.J. P.J. is P.J.,” Harden said. “Plays hard, but it’s not something that I’m worried about.”
Tucker didn’t limit his moments of impact to when he was defending Harden, a three-time scoring champion and former MVP. He had a sequence in the third quarter that seemed to be a springboard to the Heat changing the game.
He got into the lane for a basket that put Miami up 66-61. The Heat got a stop on the next possession, and the next few seconds were all Tucker.
He knocked away a rebound from the 76ers to extend a Miami possession, then got another offensive rebound, then fought off Tobias Harris so Bam Adebayo could get another rebound that leads to free throws.
“I have just the utmost respect for him," Adebayo said.
The game was still in the balance at that point. It wasn’t for much longer. The Heat would lead by 21 in the fourth, the outcome academic and a 1-0 series lead was about to come Miami’s way.
“There’s really a timeliness to his winning plays,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s tough to describe it. They’re momentum-shifting plays, and he just senses the moment. And a lot of times it’s going to be those intangible plays with loose balls, deflections, taking a charge or just pursuits on both ends of the court that don’t necessarily translate to a stat. They just infuse confidence and life into your team. He’s a really inspiring player.”
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