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The key to the Houston Rockets eliminating the Golden State Warriors? P.J. Tucker.

PJ Tucker of the Houston Rockets celebrates in the fourth quarter during Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors. (Tim Warner/Getty Images)
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No one would have blamed you if you penciled the Golden State Warriors into the NBA Finals at the beginning of the season. The NBA’s prototypical super team has been a fixture in the NBA Finals in each of the past four years, winning three titles, including back-to-back championships in 2017 and 2018. This year, however, they are in a dogfight in the second round with the Houston Rockets, a team General Manager Daryl Morey has, for years, built with one goal in mind: to topple the defending champs.

After losing the first two on the road at Oracle Arena, Houston squeaked out a win in Game 3 and added a second on Monday night, using its own version of small ball to counter punch Golden State’s dreaded “Hamptons Five” lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Dubbed the “South Beach Five,” a lineup of James Harden, Chris Paul, Austin Rivers, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker appears to be the secret weapon Houston has been lacking over the past few seasons, with Tucker unlocking the potential of it all.

Rockets’ small lineup offers Warriors’ ‘Hamptons 5’ their toughest test yet in Game 4 win

With Tucker on the court against the Warriors in the playoffs, the Rockets are outscoring them by 4.1 net points per 100 possessions. When Tucker is on the bench, Houston is outscored by 16.3 net points per 100 possessions, a huge disparity for one player.

To be fair, Tucker has spent 156 minutes on the court — much of those with Harden, one of the best players in the game — compared to 41 minutes on the bench, so there is a small-sample size effect at play. However, it is worth noting Houston has outscored all playoff opponents by nine points per 100 possessions with both Harden and Tucker on the court but gets outscored by almost eight points per 100 possessions when Harden isn’t sharing time with Tucker. Tucker, meanwhile, helps the Rockets outscore opponents by 29 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the bench.

Why is Tucker so valuable? He is the quintessential role player.

Tucker doesn’t get many touches with the ball — he is one of nine players since 1983-84 to finish the regular season with a usage rate of less than 10 percent, despite playing at least 30 minutes a night, and the first player to do so since the original no-stat all-star Shane Battier (2008-09). When he does get the ball he averages a league-low 0.7 seconds of possession time among players logging at least 30 minutes per game this season. Instead, his job is to hit open threes and be the team’s shutdown defender, two abilities helping guide Houston’s fortunes in this series.

Tucker is 17 for 38 on wide-open three-point attempts (no defender within six feet) during the 2019 NBA playoffs and 4-for-11 against the Warriors in the second round. He’s got most of his total points at the expense of Curry (11, including 3-for-3 from behind the arc) followed by Iguodala (8), Durant (7) and Green (7). He’s also grabbed double-digit rebounds in each of the past two games with 12 of his 23 total rebounds coming off the offensive glass, giving Houston second-chance opportunities at or near the rim.

Defensively, Tucker is the guy Coach Mike D’Antoni goes to when a star opponent needed defending. During the regular season Tucker’s most frequent assignments were Paul George, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Kevin Durant, Paul Millsap, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo — five all-stars and this year’s likely rookie of the year.

He’s the key that makes it all work,” D’Antoni told Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic back in April. “You can put him on a big and then he can switch to a guard and he’s fine. You can put him on a guard and then switch to a big and he’s fine. We can put him in any equation and, you know, with what he’s doing, the opposing team has not gained an advantage. With PJ, there is no advantage.”

During his regular-season matchups with Durant, he held the former MVP to 34 points over 111 possessions. That has improved slightly against Tucker during the playoffs (52 points over 153 possessions) but no one else on the Warriors has more than nine points against him in this series.

The Rockets aren’t through the woods yet. The Warriors are still the overwhelming favorite (5-7 odds) to win the 2018-19 NBA title and a six-point favorite to win Game 5 at Oracle Arena. But if Houston can pull off the upset on the road it will be in the driver’s seat: according to WhoWins, NBA teams taking Game 5 on the road go on to win the series 75 percent of the time.

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