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NBA Playoffs 2017: Even in defeat, P.J. Tucker earns respect for the Raptors

In the deciding game of the series, Tucker was given the chance to match LeBron James. It didn’t work, but it’s hard not to cheer him on anyway.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Late in the second quarter, LeBron James and P.J. Tucker got tangled up after the latter fell to the court while corralling a defensive rebound. As the action continued at the other end of the court, both men reached an arm out to hoist the other to his feet. It was a modest moment, but it radiated a quality not often shown on the court during the playoffs — mutual respect shared between two professionals.

Inserted into the starting lineup for the only time this post-season, the first in his 11-year career, Tucker was tasked with guarding the most unguardable player on the planet for the Raptors’ last stand against the Cavaliers in Game 4. Like anyone else in that spot, Tucker was over-matched. But, true to his character, he also refused to give in.

“I’ve been playing against LeBron since we were nine years old,” said Tucker. “We came up in the same class. So, it’s just another guy, another player. So many good players in this league. There’s good players every night. It’s no different, just put on your hard hat and go to work.”

And that he did. Tucker led the Raptors in minutes in Game 4, besting DeMar DeRozan by five seconds. He notched 14 points, on 5-of-11 shooting — including a much needed 4-of-7 from three — to go with 12 rebounds, and four steals. It was Tucker’s finest run of play on both ends of the court in these playoffs. It was also, sadly, for naught, as Cleveland won anyway, 109-102. What’s more, LeBron went off again for 35 points, nine rebounds, and six assists, while maintaining his ungodly 50-40-88 shooting splits. It feels like there wasn’t much more Tucker could have done on “just another guy.”

Like the rest of the Raptors, Tucker’s post-season output was often inconsistent. Though his effort and intensity were never in question, his playoff production sometimes was — there were three games of zero points, and a shooting percentage hovering around 37 percent. It’s fitting then, in true never-say-die Raptors’ fashion, that he would turn in his best performance in the season’s final game. As momentum swung in Toronto’s favour in the second half, it was Tucker’s three that shrunk the Cavalier’s lead to five at the end of the third. He then opened the fourth with another — letting loose a primal scream in between to show he was serious. The Cavs got the sweep, LeBron stayed LeBron, but we’ll remember P.J.’s effect on this team.

“I just like the fight. I just like that our guys didn’t give up,” said Tucker. “Down 0-3, it’s impossible to win, I guess, the odds [say]. But guys came here, put their hard hat on and went to work. So, I commend all my teammates.”

But now, on day one of the off-season in Toronto, Tucker is a free agent and his return to the Raptors is far from certain. He was added, along with Serge Ibaka, to help the team stack up against James and the Cavaliers, but now we’ve seen the end result of those efforts. This summer will be one of change in Toronto. The financial and competitive realities of the squad, and the league, will make certain of that. And while talk will begin with free agent Kyle Lowry and coach Dwane Casey, followed by Ibaka, and maybe the longer-tenured Patrick Patterson, Tucker will need to be considered as well. Even at 32 years of age, the oldest player on the roster, there’s still a role for Tucker in this league.

Fresh of the Game 4 loss on Sunday night, Tucker said what any player would — he liked the locker room he was a part of here in Toronto, liked the fight, liked the idea of competing with this group of players. “Lost the semi-finals this year, it’s not great,” said Tucker. “But we’re one of the final eight teams in the league, it’s a good thing. I think it will build from here.“ It’s hard to fault his optimism, even in the face of James’ continued assault on the Eastern Conference.

There was a lot of talk of disrespect surrounding the Cavs’ treatment of the Raptors in this series. James called for a circus alley-oop in Game 1, pretended to sip a beer in Game 2, yanked on Norman Powell’s jersey in Game 3. The insults kept adding up, despite the Raptors’ best efforts to avoid them. Over that stretch, Tucker became the symbol of dogged pride these Raptors still contained within themselves. Yes, he could not go shot for shot with LeBron, could not slow the man down over time in the slightest. But the respect came anyway, not as a result of the outcome, but in the attempt.

“Any time you go against someone who wants to compete, you respect that,” said James from the post-game podium. “P.J.’s been like that since we were kids. All the way through AAU ball, through high school, through going through Texas, and being a part of this league, he’s always been a guy that at the end of the day, he’s never going to say ‘did I leave it all out there?’

“As a competitor, I can always respect that going against him over the years since we were kids. It’s definitely fun to be a part of.”