P.J. Tucker is Rockets Swiss Army knife

Houston Rockets forward PJ Tucker (4) defends against Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) during the second half of Game 4 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Target Center Monday, April 23, 2018 in Minneapolis. (Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle)

The Houston Rockets are surging at just the right time. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the team has worked its way up to the No. 3-seeded team in the Western Conference. While it’s important to acknowledge the contributions of MVP James Harden, one can’t overlook the contributions of forward P.J. Tucker, the team’s Swiss Army knife.

In case you’re not familiar, a Swiss Army knife is a multi-tooled pocket knife capable of performing a variety of functions. That’s exactly what Tucker provides. The former University of Texas standout, now in his second season with the Rockets, provides the grit and blue-collar work ethic that drives the teams tenacious, switching defense.

Tucker, a former second-round pick by the Toronto Raptors, spent the formative years of his professional career outside of the NBA. He enjoyed a decorated overseas career in Israel, the Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Germany. Having earned championships and MVP honors abroad, Tucker wasn’t particularly interested in returning to the NBA.

“I wasn’t coming back to the NBA,” said Tucker, now 33. “I had no interest in it. I was successful there. I had established myself to the point where I was one of the best players in Europe at the time. These were million-dollar contracts.”  

Texas ex Lance Blanks, who at the time was the Phoenix general manager, convinced Tucker to give the NBA one more shot. After Tucker’s stint with the Suns and a playoff run with the Raptors, Rockets GM Daryl Morey signed him to afour-year, $32-million contract in 2017.   

 At 6-feet-6, 245 pounds, Tucker guards every position on the court, from point guard to center.

“P.J. can guard all five positions and he knows how to play,” head coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I can’t tell you how important that is. If we’re going to do anything, he’s got to be on the floor and playing well.” 

Point guard Chris Paul, who’s known Tucker since they played AAU ball against each other in North Carolina, discussed what makes Tucker so valuable.

 “P.J.’s basketball IQ is out the roof,” Paul said. “It starts with his defensive effort. When it comes to defense, he’s always a step ahead. There’s no question he should be first-team All-Defensive Team.”

Tucker is averaging 7.5 points, six rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game this season. His +1.5-defensive plus-minus leads any full-time rotation player on the Rockets. Offensively he’s shooting 38 percent from 3-point land. They’re not eye-popping numbers, but Paul recommends looking beyond the numbers.

“I don’t know what the analytics say or what his plus or minus is, but if you watch basketball you realize how valuable P.J. is on both ends of the court,” Paul continued. “Diving for loose balls, offensive rebounds, hitting corner 3s at just the right time, the little things. His contributions often don’t show up in the box scores. If you actually watch the game you see his value.”

For Tucker, it’s all about being able to make a contribution.

“My role is much deeper than the naked eye for most fans or people who watch basketball who don’t understand,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, you only had six points in 42 minutes.’ Yeah, but you didn’t see the eight 50-50 balls I got and that offensive-rebound-kick-out 3.” 

“We have a talented squad led by the MVP James Harden and Chris [Paul],” Tucker said. “I understand my role and it starts on the defensive end. I take a great deal of pride in my defense. We’ve got to keep working hard at getting better as the playoffs approach.”