Rockets are playing a different game, and the NBA’s future hangs in the balance


    When 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker fronts Anthony Davis in the post, squatting underneath him, his head nestled where Davis’ hips contract, changing angles to position himself for both the entry pass and the box-out, one gets the sense that if the rules allowed, Tucker would mount the 6-10 Davis on his back, walk outside the paint and hurl him away on every defensive possession, dusting his hands as he walked back.

    The Los Angeles Lakers lost Game 1 of their second-round series against the Houston Rockets on Friday night, and Davis scored 25 points on 16 shots and grabbed 14 boards. He was hardly stifled. But he was supposed to be the focal point of the Lakers’ attack. The memes had him stomping all over Tucker. Yet Davis touched the ball five times less in Game 1 than he’s accustomed to.

    Tucker knows the real war is before the catch, where his burly frame can knock opponents around. “[Davis] is too good if you let him get in his spots,” Tucker said. “If he can catch the ball low, it’s impossible to guard him. If he catches it and faces up, and you stand back and let him shoot it, he’s impossible.” There’s hope there for the Lakers, who will surely draw up a few easier ways for the best interior passer of all time to get the ball to the most vicious lob threat in the NBA in Game 2 on Sunday night. That’s why Tucker is always fronting the post, and trying to get his teammates to do the same thing. “It’s a way of being aggressive on defense,” he said, “and I always like that.”

    In the third quarter, Davis dove into the paint, imploring for the ball. Jeff Green was his refuge from Tucker. The ball was his refuge from Green, and stocky old wings like him. With the ball, Davis can exert power, turn a shoulder into Green’s chest, rise up for a baby hook. Davis lurched toward the pass, only to watch Green, fastened to Davis’ behind like a horseshoe, reach out and swat it away.

    To watch the Lakers jostle against the Rockets is to know that evolution is spawned by extinction. To know it was just that close — that it’s always as close as the difference between an interception and a catch — is to know that these forces are in constant collision, and that nobody wins forever. To think about 6-foot-maybe Raptors guard Kyle Lowry throwing his base into Celtics swingman Jayson Tatum’s grill is to watch the wind in the sails of a revolution. It is hearing that Davis — finally, mercifully for the Lakers — is willing to play more minutes at center. On the other, it is to watch a tragedy play out. It is knowing 7-footers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard will hit the bench. It is to watch big strong men be vulnerable to whims they can’t control. It’s like being an observer in the middle of a busy hospital unit, knowing that babies are being born and old folks are dying all at once. 

    During the Game 1, Warriors star Draymond Green tweeted that every big man in the NBA outside of Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic — too talented to have their value swayed by the whims of somebody else —  should be rooting for the Lakers, who are +350 to win it all at BetMGM.

    The playoffs are reductive, calcifying, clarifying. Every team is reduced to its weakest links, who are then low-balled and ignored, along with their ilk, because the collective memory of what just happened occurs right before free agency and the draft. Successful experiments spawn new theories, and the losers rush to copy the winners. Role players get lost and found in the mix.

    Tucker knows this better than anyone. He was once endangered. Too stocky. Too small. Who would he guard? In 2007, it didn’t occur to anyone that the answer was “everyone”, so he then spent five years overseas before landing a summer-league tryout with the Phoenix Suns.

    A day before Game 1, Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni was asked if he’d rather have Tucker guard James or Davis. “P’s gonna be on Davis,” he replied. “J’s gonna be on LeBron.” He paused. “Bad joke.” Wouldn’t that be nice though?

    One Tucker to box out Davis when the other is guarding James, another Tucker to snatch the rebound away from McGee’s protracted reach, one to front the post, another to cover the backside; all of them running and shooting on the other end.  The Rockets — hell, any team — would love to clone him.

    Watching the Rockets, one gets the distinct sense that the future of the NBA looks like James Harden surrounded by four Tuckers. Maybe that’s what they had in mind when they swapped Clint Capela, a traditional big man, for 6-7 Robert Covington at the trade deadline. Now Tucker starts with Eric Gordon, a 6-4 bowling ball, who managed to not get embarrassed guarding LeBron in Game 1; Harden, the strongest wing in the NBA; Covington and Russell Westbrook, the best rebounding guard in the NBA.

    Tucker says he hasn’t dwelled too much on this hairpin turn, but it has made him think of himself as a chameleon, and therein lies the key. Over the course of a series, each game, a possession, Tucker and Co. can shapeshift into what is required of them because they are rarely too different from the guys they’re trying to cover. Not too tall, not too small. The beauty of that is that they are just strong enough, just agile enough, just big enough and just tough enough to approximate any player they have to defend. Like mimes, they shapeshift and evolve, morphing into their opponents. Despite all the small-ball talk, Houston’s formula rests in being the NBA’s most horizontal team. They bludgeon teams with their sameness. It’s not exciting, but it’s the source of their power. 

    Tucker spent the first round crawling underneath the pile of dust formerly known as the NBA’s strongest man, Steven Adams, and grabbing rebounds from below his very eyes against the Thunder. Tucker leads the playoffs in box-outs — over Embiid and Jokic — doubling his regular season production. Gordon and Harden bulldozed into Adams all series, knocking him out of the paint when he tried to protect the rim. Covington, roaming the weak-side, swatted at Adams from behind. Together, this many-headed crew of should-be middle linebackers are appropriating the skills of the big men they torment, like vultures stripping away at a carcass.

    It’s hard to say if Adams is merely injured or obsolete, but he’s 27 and the Rockets made him look much older. He’s up for an extension this offseason, and you can bet the Thunder are going to pore over the tape before doling out any eight-figure deals.

    Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers’ 6-8 multi-use Sixth Man of the Year, is a free agent this summer. So are burly 7-footers Hassan Whiteside, Enes Kanter and Dwight Howard. While the Celtics’ Kemba Walker makes pylons out of Raptors big men Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, 6-8 Jerami Grant is working through the intricacies of the weak side for Denver. They’re all up for new contracts this offseason.

    The Rockets aren’t trying to make a whole position go extinct, and the Lakers aren’t trying to save an endangered species. Both teams are trying to construct the ideal team to win a championship. If the league’s axis shifts as a result, so be it. Life is fickle for role players, whose value will be predicated by a proxy war they have no control over. They’ll be watching like the rest of us, waiting to see which tide sweeps who away. 


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