PHOENIX — A series of timely Euro steps were taken by P.J. Tucker during a pro basketball odyssey that’s now playing at U.S. Airways Center.
“My time in Europe definitely helped me get here,” Tucker said Wednesday night before he and the Phoenix Suns ripped the Charlotte Bobcats, 121-104. “No doubt about that.”
By “here,” Tucker could have been referring to a growing level of prominence in the Suns’ rotation. As ringleader in a second-quarter squeeze of the Bobcats, the relentlessly single-minded small forward guarded four different players and scored 10 points in a 36-19, 12-minute blitz. Charlotte missed 12 of 15 shots in the period and committed 6 turnovers.
But certain elements in Tucker’s knack for generating opponent mistakes, hustling to fill the lane and finishing can be credited to his Europe-to-NBA translation.
“I’ve always been a pretty good defender,” Tucker, who starred at Texas before being selected by the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft, said. “But playing in Europe made me learn how to defend a lot of different positions.
“Over there, guys one (point guard) through four (power forward) all can handle the ball, shoot the ball, pass the ball… the game is just different. Players are so good at playing without the ball, so it forces you to be versatile.”
Before Shannon Brown and a few of his first-string cronies went 3-point cuckoo in the third quarter, the surprisingly versatile Tucker and Sebastian Telfair were leading Phoenix’s second unit in taking the game by the throat. The Suns’ triumph was their fourth in a row, improved their record to 11-15 and extended the Bobcats’ losing streak to 13.
Playing the second night of a back-to-back shift, Charlotte shot 54 percent in the opening quarter and trailed, 28-27. That’s when the second unit, which didn’t exactly flourish when its number was called to start the fourth quarter, took over.
Demonstrating the aforementioned, European-influenced Swiss-Army-Knife capacity for defensive multi-tasking, Tucker checked Bobcats point guard Ramon Sessions in addition to spending time against wing players Gerald Henderson, Ben Gordon and rookie Jeffery Taylor.
A signature moment occurred at 6:11 when Tucker stripped the ball from an attacking Sessions and finished a transition lay-up on a feed from Michael Beasley to give Phoenix a 46-33 lead. Although he didn’t receive official credit for a steal, three of Tucker’s defensive reactions created Bobcat mistakes.
Having a stopper of Tucker’s ilk is a luxury the Suns probably thought they’d lost when the franchise waved good-bye to veteran Grant Hill. With a job opening at small forward last summer, Phoenix had turned to Minnesota, bringing in ex-Timberwolves Beasley and Wesley Johnson as an athletic tag team of formerly very high draft picks.
To most local Suns watchdogs, Tucker — who was last season’s Player of the Year in Germany’s top league — loomed as little more than an end-of-the-bench candidate capable of making any practice physically competitive. But a ragged start by Beasley and little production from Johnson — teaming up with a general team defensive stupor — inspired Suns coach Alvin Gentry to summon his new energy guy, the Euro treasure.
It worked out famously in Wednesday’s second quarter. But after doing much of the heavy lifting, Tucker spent most of the second half watching his teammates temporarily stagger the Bobcats with dazzling offense.
Shortly after the second half began, Brown erupted for 15 of his season-high 26 points in a pinch over two minutes. Three of his buckets, covering a two-minute span, were launched behind the arc.
“I just come out and try to execute the game plan,” Brown said. “We run our stuff, people are going to get wide-open shots.”
Like Brown, Jared Dudley went crazy from 3-point range and ended the night with his third 20-points-plus game in a row (he had an even 20). Point guard Goran Dragic, who had 11 points in the opening quarter, finished with 21 and combined with the other two perimeter starters to bag 13 of 20 shots behind the arc.
Overall, the Suns made 17 of 28 from 3 and shot 55 percent from everywhere for their season-high 121 points.
“I just thought our ball movement was better,” Gentry said. “We were unselfish — almost to a fault. We had their bigs in rotation and we able to get open looks with our feet set.”
But most of Gentry’s potential glee was soured when a chunk of Phoenix’s 30-point lead was given away by the second unit in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter.
“They didn’t play the right way,” he said after praising the same crew for playing in textbook fashion during the second quarter. “They did a great job in the second quarter. They’re the ones that got the separation for us, but once again, it’s a 48-minute game, so you have to play for 48 minutes.
“We have to do a better job of staying in the moment,” Gentry said.
At this moment, the Suns are riding relatively high toward Saturday’s meeting with the Trail Blazers in Portland, where the home team figures to be a lot more engaged than it was while sleepwalking through most of its last game here.
The Suns meet the sizzling Los Angeles Clippers back in Arizona the following night, and have a day-after-Christmas date with the New York Knicks and (possibly) old pal Amar’e Stoudemire.
Considering the level of talent they’ll be competing against next week, more dead-eye shooting would come in handy.
But so would a few more stellar defensive moments from Tucker.