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P.J. Tucker is the unsung hero the Rockets need

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After the Tuckwagon’s finest game as a Rocket, an appreciation of the dirty work he’s done all year.

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

P.J. Tucker has hit timely three-pointers, played shutdown defense and grabbed huge rebounds all season. In Game 1 against the Jazz, he was just a little extra with 15 points and 6 rebounds while chipping in his usual, smothering D.

None of it was a surprise: outside of James Harden, there has not been a more consistent presence in Houston this season.

His shooting wasn’t a surprise, as he hit his first three three-pointers to help the Rockets storm out to an early lead they wouldn’t relinquish. He hit better than 37 percent from deep this year, better than everyone but Chris Paul and Ryan Anderson on the Rockets this season.

His defense wasn’t a surprise. He was second in most defensive metrics on the team behind Clint Capela — statistically speaking, one of the best defensive players in the league — and his insertion into the starting lineup after Anderson went down keyed the surge in defensive efficiency for the team in the second half. At the All-Star break, they were hovering around the 10th-best defense in the league. They finished sixth.

Tucker’s rebounding wasn’t a surprise. His six in the game were right in line with his season average of 5.6 per game, and he was the second-best Rocket (behind Capela again) at gobbling up rebounds while he was on the floor.

This was a long-winded of saying: P.J. Tucker’s best games meant just more of the same from him.

Jonathan Feigen wrote a great piece this weekend about P.J. Tucker and the man after whom he patterned his game: Mario Elie. The piece accomplished what all great journalism does: it tells me something I didn’t already know, and with that, helps me understand the topic being covered.

Of course Tucker’s role model is the Junkyard Dog. Elie was the perfect piece alongside Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Robert Horry, Vernon Maxwell, Sam Cassell and the rest. He played mean defense, guarded bigger guys, gave the Rockets a physical edge and buried big three-pointers from the corner.

Every championship team needs a player like that. P.J. Tucker went to school down the road in Austin, and his coach, Rick Barnes, told him to be a player just like that. To read P.J. tell it, he’s not afraid of the moment because he’s already won championships overseas.

He has shown, through six Rockets playoff games, that he is not afraid of the moment. As Eric Gordon has gone ice cold, Ariza started cold (he’s since warmed up some), Gerald Green has found his playing time disappeared and Anderson and Luc Mbah a Moute are working their way back from injury, the Rockets have desperately needed Tucker’s sharpshooting. He shot 39.7 percent from deep in the first round, behind only Ryno’s 45.5 percent, but Tucker had 12 more attempts.

While Capela has been revelatory in the middle so far, Tucker deserves a huge amount of credit for neutralizing Karl-Anthony Towns, and Gobert in Game 1, considering how often he’s battling with them inside. He hasn’t fouled out in any game either, and while he doesn’t block many shots, his immovability down low forced Towns into fading jumpers rather than layups off the glass.

He will be asked to do more against the Jazz, and he answered the bell in Game 1. The Jazz start Gobert and Derrick Favors, two big men to whom Tucker gives up at least 5 inches. P.J. is used to guarding much bigger guys, but Favors is not nearly as comfortable stretching himself out to the three-point line. Tucker was wide open in the corner, where he’s deadly, multiple times. The Rockets will continue to find him there, and he has to continue taking, and making, those shots.

What was most impressive in Game 1 were the two drives to the hoop P.J. made from the perimeter, using a pump fake and finishing expertly. It was jarring to see because it almost never happens, but he has such a quickness advantage on Favors and Jonas Jerebko that he should be able to get all the different shots he wants.

If the Rockets get past the Jazz, Tucker will be even more indispensable; he’ll be asked to guard Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala in different lineups, end Warriors possessions with rebounds and hit shots that might be a little less open than they were against the Wolves and Jazz.

He is unlikely to shy away from those moments, if his history is any indication. If the Rockets accomplish their goals this season, Tucker’s quiet contributions and consistency — he has played in every single game — will be a big reason why.