Back in January, we were talking about P.J. Tucker for all the wrong reasons.
He was mired in a shooting slump so deep, he had decided it was best to pretty much stop shooting altogether. It also coincided with the worst stretch of Houston Rockets basketball of the entire season, in which the team lost seven out of nine contests, dropping games to tougher teams like the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder and even not-so-tough ones in the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers.
There were a multitude of reasons for Houston’s overall struggles during that stretch, but one of the main culprits was Tucker’s missing shot.
It’s appropriate then that with the Rockets in the midst of one of their best stretches of ball of the season — winners of their last 13 games — that Tucker’s shot has returned and he’s back to helping Houston win basketball games.
During Houston’s 13-game win streak, Tucker is shooting 23 for 54 from beyond the arc, good enough for 42.6 percent. He’s a career 35 percent shooter from three and is knocking down 36 percent total on the year, so he’s been indexing far above his typical deep shooting numbers since the Rockets started this streak back on January 28.
And this is taking into consideration that Tucker finally cooled off against the Utah Jazz on Monday night, putting up a goose egg in the field goal column, including going 0-4 from three. That was the first time he failed to hit a three-point shot since the opening game of the win streak, which is a full month ago now.
As a comparison, when the Rockets were losing at the turn of the New Year, Tucker was shooting an almost unfathomable 7 percent from deep during that difficult stretch. Yes, you read that correctly: 7 percent.
Tucker’s overall field goal percentage over this last month is still a relatively low 38.9 percent, but even that number is higher than his 38.1 percent total for the year and the basement low 24 percent he was shooting during the dark days of the December/January losing.
His offensive rating during the win streak is a sky-high 116.2. And while some of that certainly is the James Harden and Chris Paul effect, there’s no doubting that Tucker’s recent smooth shooting is contributing to that as well.
Due to some nagging injuries and illness among the Houston roster, Tucker recently entered the starting lineup over former starter Ryan Anderson, spending more time alongside Houston’s two superstars. But his three-point shooting has been so good, that he’s stuck with the starters and kept Anderson with the second unit. Now that Ryno is battling several injury issues, you can can expect Tucker to continue to start for the foreseeable future, perhaps for the rest of the season and into the playoffs.
There is some precedence for Tucker getting hot like this for an extended stretch. Last year, after he was traded to the Toronto Raptors from the Phoenix Suns, he shot 40 percent from deep with the Raps in the final 24 games of the season.
He wasn’t quite as good in Toronto’s 10 postseason games, going 9-28, but that’s still good enough for a combined 37.5 percent percent from deep for his entire time in a Raptors jersey. If he can shoot that the rest of the way out in Houston, the Rockets will be in good shape.
But it hasn’t been just Tucker’s three-point shooting that’s seen a positive bump of late. His defense has been every bit as rugged as advertised during the win streak as well.
Tucker’s defensive rating during Houston’s 13-game streak sits at a very solid 103.3, a slight improvement over his season-long tally of 103.8. But that tough defense hasn’t been a constant on the season. During the Houston losing streak, Tucker’s defensive rating was a so-high-it’s-barely-believable 119.3. And he wasn’t yet a full-time presence in the starting lineup like he is now.
He’s currently spending more time defending the opposition’s top wing players than he was during the team struggles earlier in the year. And even though he’s spending more time guarding guys from the first unit, including lots of switches onto centers, his differential percentage is +1.8 over the course of the win streak, an improvement from the +4.6 percent he has on the year as a whole (remember, lower is better with differential percentage).
The point of looking this closely at Tucker’s play during the winning and losing streaks is to confirm what they eye test often tells us: when P.J. is playing well, the Rockets are winning. When he struggles, the Rockets overall tend to struggle.
So if you’re looking at the team beyond it’s two superstars — and even if you want to include its big three with Clint Capela, which has lost just a single time this year all on the court together -- and you’re searching for a secondary x-factor to pop out among Houston’s deep and impressive cadre of role players, look no further than Anthony Leon “P.J.” Tucker. He’s currently personifying the term.
When he’s hitting his shots, particularly from beyond the arc, and he’s playing the smart and tenacious defense that built his reputation, the Rockets have been an essentially impossible team to beat.