Suns’ P.J. Tucker wants to put an end to slow beginnings

While the Suns have struggled since the All-Star break, P.J. Tucker is not to blame. He's bumped up his production to 14 points and 8.8 rebounds over the past eight games.

Dennis Wierzbicki/Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

Escaping the Florida stage of a four-game road trip with a split doesn’t seem to have imbued the Suns with a sense of accomplishment.

Knocking off the Magic, 105-100, in Orlando on Wednesday night certainly did little to assuage the expectations of Suns forward P.J. Tucker.

Tucker, who provides the team with its heartbeat, scored all 19 of his points in the second half, chaperoning a rally that was required after allowing one of the league’s worst teams to gain a 15-point lead.

After trailing 52-43 at intermission, Phoenix pushed Orlando toward its 43rd loss by with a 34-17 third-quarter blitz.

"We started out the game like we’ve been starting games," Tucker said, "slow, inattentive, not making plays, turning the ball over . . .

"We’ve got to come out and go at people. I feel the last few games we’ve kind of been back on our toes. If we put other teams back on their toes and attack . . . I feel that if we do that, we can play with any team in the league."

With only three victories in eight games since the All-Star break and subsequent roster upheaval, the Suns can look at their tepid starts as defining moments in most of these defeats.

But losing the first quarter five times in this stretch doesn’t qualify as inconsistent with how they’ve performed most of the season. With only 20 games remaining this season, the Suns rank 22nd  among NBA teams (minus-0.9, per in first-quarter differential.

Their recent game-opening efforts seem more confounding than usual, however, in the wake of disparate first-quarter efforts against the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.

Suns surge in second half to beat Magic

Playing with more passion than we’ve seen in a while, the Suns finished their first quarter against OKC with a 25-15 cushion. Two nights later, they reached halftime with a franchise-low 24 points against the Spurs.

The Suns actually led after their first quarter in Miami on Monday but came out flat against the struggling Magic.

"It’s a good win, we needed it, but it shouldn’t have been like it was," Tucker said. "We should come out full of energy in a game like this. We’ve lost close games . . . the way we played, we’ve got to come out harder. We’re not satisfied, we can’t be satisfied to get a win or two, beat a good team or two. We’ve got to come out every single game, every single minute from the start of the game. We gave up layups, wide-open shots . . . if they had made their 3s, they might have had another 40-point quarter. Even though we won and I’m happy we won, I’m not happy with our performance at all."

Tucker, who made 7 of 10 shots from the field in Orlando, also provided his usual level of resistance on defense. Matched against Tobias Harris for most of his defensive shifts, P.J. helped the Suns limit the Magic small forward to 11 points, zero in the second half.

Although the Suns are struggling to establish some cohesion since the trading deadline, Tucker has been a catalyst in easing the transition.

Tucker, who averages 8.8 points and 6.3 rebounds on the season, has provided upgrades of 14 points and 8.8 rebounds per game since the break. A 45.3 percent shooter overall, the veteran small forward from Texas has made half of his field-goal attempts in that span.

What also deserves mention is Tucker’s improvement in finishing those runaway-train-style assaults on the basket.

While Suns fans don’t seem to mind when P.J. tees it up behind the 3-point arc (especially from the corner), Tucker’s accuracy from deep has dipped from 38.7 percent last season to 34.8.

But those drives that begin with Tucker careening into the lane have ended with a 74-percent success rate at the rim — compared with 53.5 percent last season.

Tucker will carry Wednesday’s quest for four-quarter consistency into the final two games of the road trip. Friday’s date will occur in Brooklyn, where he likely will be matched against the Nets’ Joe Johnson.

The following night, it’s LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Cleveland. Two nights later, the Suns will take on the Golden State Warriors in Phoenix.

Tucker should draw the assignment of tracking Klay Thompson in that one.

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