For four days before the start of these Eastern Conference finals, left with little else to discuss during yet another extended postseason break, coach Erik Spoelstra and his Miami Heat players spoke of the impending need to make the hustle plays, be first to the ball, impose will, take care of the small stuff in the margins.
Basically, all the trite notions that eventually would give way to superstars offering the spectacular during the penultimate round of the postseason.
Only not so trite.
And almost as they were speaking directly to and directly about veteran power forward PJ Tucker.
Because beyond all those who filled the box score Tuesday night with the gaudy, from the 41 points of Heat forward Jimmy Butler in the 118-107 Game 1 victory of the best-of-seven series to the 29 of Celtics forward Jayson Tatum in his team’s loss, it arguably was the small stuff from Tucker that carried some of the game’s greatest heft.
“The heartbeat of our team,” Spoelstra said of the 37-year-old veteran who is coming off last season’s championship with the Milwaukee Bucks and now is three wins from getting back to the NBA Finals.
“He inspires everybody,” Spoelstra said, with the Heat shifting their focus to Thursday’s 8:30 pm Game 2 against the Celtics at FTX Arena.
According to the boxscore, it was a mundane night, five points, six rebounds, three assists, a steal.
But for a team that was down 13 early, it was an inspirational night, one of several during this path from April into May, with an eye on June.
“I didn’t know I would fall in love with a basketball player as much as I have with PJ” Butler said as Tuesday turned to Wednesday. “Seriously, because he just plays incredibly hard, and then he got the tough job every night of guarding the opposing team’s best player, and then going down there and shooting the ball five times.
“Like, you got to respect that. Because some guys are like – and I even get like this at times – I’d be like, ‘Man, I’m not going out here just to play defense and not go down there and shoot the ball.’ “
Having twisted his ankle so badly that he had to limp into the Heat locker room as play continued in Tuesday’s first half, Tucker was back out there for the start of the second half, for the start of the defining 22-2 third-quarter run that rendered moot almost all that followed.
For Tucker, it never was an issue if he would return, as he made clear with postgame brevity during his media session.
Question: “Can you describe for us what happened in the second quarter? Was it your ankle?”
Tucker: “I rolled my ankle.”
Question: “Did you know you would come back or where did . . .”
Tucker (cutting short the question): “Always come back.”
Question: “What happened in the locker room?”
Tucker: “There’s a genie back there. Took one of my wishes.”
The words might come off as whimsical, but Tucker never broke from the attentive, steely gaze toward his interviewers.
“By the time that I had walked into the locker room,” Spoelstra said of a similar, stoic exchange at halftime, “he looked at me dead in the eye and said, ‘Don’t even think about it. I’m playing in the second half.’ “
By that stage, Tucker also had let his teammates know the first half was unacceptable, the early 13-point hole, the 62-54 deficit at halftime.
“PJ’s voice was heard a lot,” guard Gabe Vincent said.
A gravelly voice, one carrying plenty of gravity.
“Took us a long time to get aggressive,” Tucker said. “They were the aggressive team in the first half. We were way too soft and they got to pretty much everything they wanted, and we finally picked it up in the third quarter.
“It’s conference finals. Can’t just do one thing; two, three, four, five things, in a single possession. Sometimes, whatever it takes. But we finally got that effort in the second half.”
The previous round for the Heat ended with Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid lamenting his team’s lack of a player like Tucker, and, therefore his team’s lack of the hustle plays, being first to the ball, imposing will, taking care of the small stuff in the margins.
Because to Tucker, nothing is too trite.
Merely winning plays left for others to chronicle when the boxscore won’t.
“He never, ever, ever complains,” Butler said. “He’s one of the biggest reasons why we ‘re winning – because he does all the little things. It’s easy to follow suit whenever you’ve got somebody like that leading your team.”