P.J. Tucker showed against the Oklahoma City Thunder why he is the Suns' "man of steel."
Goran Dragic entered dragon mode in the second quarter, scoring 19 points in the period and finishing with a team best 26 points. Gerald Green got red hot in the second half and scored 17 of his 24 points.
But the player of the game for the Suns was P.J. Tucker.
"He's always like that. Even in practice he's always battling...he's great for us," Dragic said after the win. "I've always said that hopefully he will stay here for a long time. He's such a warrior and we saw that tonight. He made some big shots ... some huge defensive rebounds for us and he's such a nice guy and great player."
As Dave recently wrote, the Suns are going to need Tucker at his best if they are going to make the playoffs, and they certainly got it on Sunday night. Tucker finished with 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks, and he did all of that while guarding the league's most unstoppable offensive force in Kevin Durant.
In college, Tucker made two total 3-pointers in his three-year career. Last season, he bumped that up to 22 made threes at a 31.4 percent clip.
Tucker worked hard this summer to reinvent himself as a 3-point threat, and that hard work has paid off for both him and the Suns this season as he is shooting 40 percent with almost all of them coming from the corners.
Against the Thunder, Tucker hit a career-high four 3-pointers on just five attempts, and the fifth nearly went in as well.
Tucker's transformation into a shooter has been a big part of the Suns' success this season. Dragic and Eric Bledsoe's driving ability force teams to rotate over to cut off penetration out of isolation or the pick-and-roll, and Tucker is often the guy left open. This season, he has made teams pay for that, and he did it four times against Oklahoma City.
Tucker wasn't just a shooter in this game, however. He earned his way back into the league on the strength of his heart, hustle and defensive activity, and the 6-foot-5-inch forward showcased all of that against the Thunder. Tucker stuffed the box score with two buckets in the post, one on a cut, a team-best seven rebounds and four stocks in addition to the four triples.
Tucker was all over the court all night long and made a handful of crucial plays.
If you notice in the videos, roughly half of his highlights came in the fourth quarter. Tucker stepped his game up late and scored 11 of his points and pulled down four of his rebounds in the final 11-and-a-half minutes. He recorded one 3-pointer, one layup, three free-throws, three rebounds, one steal and helped force another turnover all in the last five minutes after the game was knotted at 105 apiece.
He also did all of this while guarding likely MVP Kevin Durant all night. Durant scored 38 points, but he's capable of doing that against anyone. However, while Tucker needed five tries to make his four treys, it took Durant a career-high 15 attempts to match him. A lot of that was simply Durant missing shots, but Tucker's relentless and physical style of defense can really effect an opponent's legs and it is hard to shoot while tired.
Tucker was the MVP of this game, putting up big numbers while matching up with the MVP of the entire league. While his per game averages don't stand out, games like this show he is capable of stepping up in big games when teams need him most. His impact also extends beyond the court.
In addition to all the 3-pointers, rebounds and defensive stops, Tucker is also a team leader, something head coach Jeff Hornacek has said repeatedly.
"He is our emotional leader in terms of playing hard," Hornacek said. "He is constantly on guys ... because he plays hard. This year he has come into the year and made his corner threes. I think he made four of them over there. And, we all know about his defense. Defensively, we put him on the best players that are on the other team. He has to work all game long to try and stop those guys and than we ask him to score a little bit too. He has been invaluable for us."
In his post game interview, Dragic called Tucker a "man of steel." After last night's game and everything he's done over the past two years, I can't think of a more fitting nickname.