NBC Sports

All hail the grunt players of great NBA playoff teams

NBC Sports
Kevin Durant P.J. Tucker

Kevin Durant takes the court again Tuesday, and P.J. Tucker will be waiting. It’s a hideous mismatch insofar as KD is one of the most gifted players in basketball history and Tucker is a certified grunt whose primary purpose is to make the superstar sweat.

If Tucker succeeds, the Milwaukee Bucks have a chance to beat the Brooklyn Nets and take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

If Tucker fails? Well, hey, it was a mismatch.

That’s the beauty of a Tucker, and those who embrace such a role. They’re selfless, often because they’ve never known the comforts of diamond-level entitlement. They’re fearless because they know fear is failure. They were second-round picks, if drafted at all. Their route to the NBA was through basketball steerage, and upon arriving at the top deck they still identify with the proletariat.

Those guys are essential. It’s why the Warriors appreciate backing into Juan Toscano-Anderson, aka the dude who dived over the scorer’s table to save a loose ball. Aka the dude who told overzealous Memphis Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks to stop hugging up on Steph Curry.

Aka the dude who wasn’t drafted and took his chances abroad before being invited to earn a spot in the NBA. 

Draymond Green, a second-round pick, fit that mold before he outgrew it and became an All-Star. There is a “dawg” gene. He has it, as do the others.

Scan the rosters of the seven remaining teams, and you’ll find such a presence on every team except the Atlanta Hawks, who are bound to realize they need that dude.

 

The Bucks have Tucker, undrafted out of college and spending several years abroad before snagging an NBA job. The Nets have Bruce Brown, a 2018 second-round pick. Philadelphia’s Danny Green is a household name, but the injured guard is a second-round pick whose job is to do the dirty work and make a few corner 3-balls. He has championship rings with three different teams.

The Utah Jazz have Royce O’Neale, whose resumé mirrors that of Tucker. The Los Angeles Clippers have two second-round picks, Patrick Beverley (two years abroad) and Terance Mann, suited for such a role. The Phoenix Suns’ Torrey Craig went undrafted in 2014, and then played in Australia and New Zealand before making his NBA debut three weeks before he turned 27.

The essential grinder is not a new phenomenon. Check the history of successful teams, and more often than not you’ll find someone who eschews glitz and glamor and, with great pride, locks in on his grimy task.

The great Miami Heat teams of a few years ago had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They also had the indispensable Udonis Haslem, who, of course was an undrafted player that spent time overseas before reaching the NBA.

Before Haslem, there was James Posey in Boston, Bruce Bowen in San Antonio, Chucky Atkins in Detroit, Mario Elie in Houston and San Antonio. The Showtime Lakers unleashed Michael Cooper, a third-round pick when there was such a thing, to defend Hall of Famer Larry Bird.

Cooper might have been the original 3-and-D wing, except he was more D-and-3.

So, too, all these years later, is Tucker. Milwaukee’s fate is tied as much to Tucker’s work in the trenches as they are to those Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dazzling drive-and-flush finishes in the paint.

We’re more than three weeks deep into the postseason and, as always, all spotlights are following the stars. Of course. They’re the known commodities. They generate drama. Drive storylines. Meet Trae and Book. See KD. Look at Giannis. Hey, there’s Joel Embiid. How about Kawhi? Will CP3 finally win a ring?

RELATED: Draymond named NBA All-Defensive First Team for fourth time

But no matter how many stars a team can roll out during the postseason, any chance of a parade also requires at least one grunt on the roster. Somebody eager to roll up his sleeves, wipe his brow and begin clearing the brush.

He’s as popular with teammates as he is unpopular with opponents. His contributions can’t be measured by statistics because it’s seen in effort and impact. If he’s good, his team likely wins. If he’s excellent, his team almost certainly wins.

And it’s clear, without asking, that’s all that matters.

Download and subscribe to the Dubs Talk Podcast