Midway through the second half of the Eastern Conference Finals opener against the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat were doing poorly. Jayson Tatum seemed on course for a 40-point night, Robert Williams had dominated from below and the Beantowners got to the basket with ease.
Then injury was added to the insult when Heat forward PJ Tucker rolled his right ankle while trying to defend the Cs’ Jaylen Brown.
The former backed away from the foul line into the backcourt when Tucker tried to chase him. As he put his foot down to halt his forward motion and stick to Brown, it became clear that something had happened.
Shortly after, Tucker hobbled back to the locker room and there were real concerns about his ability to return. But that’s exactly what he did in the end.
As the second half began, the 37-year-old was on the pitch with the rest of the club’s starting XI and the Heat secured a 118-107 win to take a 1-0 lead over the Celtics. After the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made it clear that Tucker was not willing to sit out under any circumstances.
As Spoelstra says, Tucker didn’t even give him the opportunity to change anything during the break. The baller was intent on doing whatever he could in court to help put the ship back in order, and he wasted no time in letting his trainer know.
“By the time I had gone to the dressing room [for halftime], he looked at me – straight in the eye – and said, ‘Don’t even think about it. I’ll play in the second half,'” Spoelstra said after the competition. “I didn’t question it, but you know…”
Tucker finished the tournament with five points, six rebounds, three assists and a steal. Meanwhile, the Heat were plus-12 when he was down. But as Spoelstra pointed out after the game, his influence goes far beyond counting statistics.
“What he does doesn’t really get noticed by everyone out there because — I don’t even know what his stats were — but you talk about one of the toughest covers and then when he’s on the weak side, he does it all correct. He’s like a great linebacker. He just organizes everyone.”
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It’s clear the Heat will go as far as players like Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo take them this postseason. They may have become one of the deeper teams in the league – and one with multiple stars – but these two players are the cornerstones. However, Spoelstra made it clear that Tucker’s presence drives the club in a similar way.
“I feel like I said that about a couple of our guys, you know…the ‘heartbeat’ of our team. Because Bam is obviously Jimmy, but Tuck for sure is,” said Spoelstra.
Tucker and the Heat will be back in action for Game 2 against the Celtics at FTX Arena on Thursday. Tip-off is at 8:30 p.m. ET.