“I just have to figure it out”
SALT LAKE CITY — During the final minutes of the 76ers home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Thursday, PJ Tucker sat on the bench with a towel draped over his head.
The image has become increasingly common in fourth quarters, and encapsulated the disappointment of Tucker’s Sixers tenure thus far. The veteran forward — and celebrated summer acquisition because of his reputation for defense, toughness and championship pedigree, he acknowledged that the first half of the regular season “wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be.” The fact that he has logged three total minutes in the fourth quarter in his last five games entering Saturday night at the Utah Jazz has forced him to balance the “natural human emotion” of going down with allowing “coaches be coaches and do what they think is best.”
Tucker also said repeatedly during a Saturday morning conversation with The Inquirer that it’s up to him to “figure it out” as his team begins a crucial five-game road trip in the Western Conference.
“Being who I am and being a guy that showed my previous coaches where it’s like I can’t no to be on the floor,” Tucker said, “to be in a position that I’ve never been in, where I’m not playing, and I still have to stay positive. You still have to be professional.
“It’s a push of everything…what you’re used to and what your job is, what you came here for.”
Tucker is playing for his third team in less than two calendar years, after being traded to the NBA title-winning Milwaukee Bucks at the 2021 deadline and spending last season with a Miami Heat team that finished with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference. . However, the 37-year-old forward said it has been especially difficult to find his way into this Sixers team, especially with the numerous lineup changes due to various health issues in the squad. Tucker entered Saturday averaging 3.3 points per game, his lowest since averaging 1.8 in 17 games as a rookie in 2006-07, and 4.3 rebounds in 27.2 minutes per game .
“It’s different on other teams, when you’ve been there and you’ve shaped your place on the team and your identity is established,” Tucker said. “It’s much easier. … No two days are the same [with the Sixers]. Every game has been different.
“It’s a weird place where I just have to figure it out. That’s where I’m at with it. There’s no other way to explain it.”
Tucker has never been a powerhouse scorer, averaging 6.9 points on 5.9 field goal attempts in his 12-year career entering Saturday. But he’s acknowledged, on this roster, “I’m not going to get the look” he received at previous stops, when he became a prolific corner three-point shooter in addition to his more unhinged role player. duties, how to keep possessions alive by grabbing offensive rebounds and loose balls, and getting physical while defending against opponents of all sizes. He had taken one or zero shots in 11 of the 39 games played entering Saturday, and was scoreless in 12.
He has also received outside criticism for a lack of offensive production, responding with a “grin and giggle.”
“They talk about how much you don’t score,” Tucker said. “Can you imagine playing 30 minutes and making a shot? Maybe not shooting at all? And still having to guard the best player and do all the dirty stuff, knowing you’re not going to get the normal reward of being able to shoot the ball and play offense , which everyone wants to do?
“This is a job. That’s not something that anybody picks in the entire NBA.”
However, this is the first time since Tucker established himself as a key player in the rotation that he hasn’t been a regular in crunch time for a significant stretch. He said he and coach Doc Rivers haven’t had explicit conversations about the reasoning behind the lack of fourth-quarter minutes.
One positive: Tucker said his health has been improving. The sinus infection that kept him out of last Sunday’s win over the Detroit Pistons is clearing up. The nerve problem in his neck is a “daily process” he continues to manage.
So Tucker will continue to try to figure it out. He believes that mission could also apply to his team, which has played less than 10 games with its opening night starting lineup and could be without Tobias Harris and Georges Niang against the Jazz.
“That’s the scary part about still being really good,” Tucker said of the Sixers, who entered Saturday with a 25-16 record, “to feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface with the talent we have in this team
“We can match up on every level with anybody in the league, period.”