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Tucker's tenacity, player-led adjustments empower Butler, Miami Heat

Tucker's tenacity, player-led adjustments empower Butler, Miami Heat
Miami Heat forward P.J. Tucker (L) helped shut down All-Star forward Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics offense in a win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday in Miami. Photo by Rhona Wise/EPA-EFE

MIAMI, May 18 (UPI) -- Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra continues to let veteran players handle how best to respond to playoff adversity. The stray-from-clipboard strategy guided the team to within three wins of an NBA Finals appearance.

The Heat's latest surge was a response to a halftime deficit to the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday in Miami.

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Heat players appeared slow, disconnected and uninspired through the first 24 minutes. The team transformed at halftime, outscoring the Celtics by 25 in the third quarter to win 118-107 and take command of the best-of-seven-game series.

"Udonis Haslem's voice was heard a lot. P.J. Tucker's voice was heard a lot. Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and our typical leaders that everyone knows [were heard]," Heat guard Gabe Vincent told reporters late Wednesday when asked about the locker room scene at halftime.

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"They spoke up and other guys chimed in. ... All 17 [Heat players] said something at some point. It was very player-led at halftime. Spoelstra came in and cleaned up some details, and we went out there and picked up intensity."

Spoelstra used a similar strategy in the conference semifinals. The Philadelphia 76ers beat the Heat in two straight meetings to tie the series through four games. The veteran coach turned to Butler, Tucker and All-Star center Bam Adebayo to adjust and coordinate a new defensive plan after the 76ers appeared poised to steal the series.

The Heat went on to beat the 76ers by 35 in Game 5 and claimed the series in six games to reach the conference finals.

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"It's crazy because I thought he was going to be more like a dictator than he is," Tucker said of Spoelstra and the Heat's adjustments after Game 5 on May 10 in Miami. "He's really not like that. ... He let us talk and figure it out. I think that is huge, because we are the ones out there doing it.

"It's definitely collaborative and I'm appreciative of that because it's not always like that."

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Butler's 40-plus-point performances often steer the spotlight away from the team's other contributors. Tucker, for instance, rarely scores more than 10 points in a game, but his constant defensive pressure, communication and ball movement helped the Heat reach the Eastern Conference finals.

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You won't see Tucker's value if you glance at a box score. But those who watch Heat games often find it hard to take their eyes off him under the basket on both ends of the floor, as he constantly wrestles foes for position, takes charges and pokes loose balls to teammates to create extra possessions.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound forward -- whom Spoelstra compares to an NFL linebacker -- took responsibility for the Heat's first-half woes and locked down Celtics All-Star forward Jayson Tatum down the stretch Tuesday in Game 1. Tatum scored 21 of his team-high 29 points in the first half. He went 0 for 3 from the field when guarded by Tucker.

"I didn't know I would fall in love with a basketball player as much as I have with P.J.," Butler said of Tucker. "Seriously, because he just plays incredibly hard, and then he gets the tough job every night of guarding the opposing team's best player, and going down there and shooting the ball [just] five times.

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"You got to respect that. Because some guys are like -- and I even get like this at times -- like, 'man, I'm not going out here just to play defense and not go down there and shoot the ball.'"

Butler said Tucker is "one of the biggest reasons" the team wins. Tucker's lack of complaining about his role and the "little things" in his game, like relentless energy, are what Butler says make Tucker "easy to follow."

"What he does doesn't really get noticed by everybody out there," Spoelstra said. "I don't have my glasses and I don't even know what his stat line was.

"But you're talking about one of the toughest covers [defending Tatum]. And then when he's on the weak side, he does all the right things. He's like a great linebacker. He just gets everybody organized and he communicates so well to get guys to their spots."

Tucker also locked down Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young and 76ers stars Joel Embiid and James Harden in one-on-one matchups in the previous two series.

Spoelstra continues to talk about the team's "multiple efforts" defensively on each possession. That effort from multiple players simultaneously is what separates teams in the playoffs, when all rosters are filled with elite talent.

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Spoelstra said Tuesday that his group "ignites from inspiration" provided by Butler and Tucker.

"I think Jimmy's aggression just puts everyone else in their places," Tucker said.

"You can't expect him to get 40 points. He's consistently being aggressive, whether he's making shots, missing shots, whatever the case is, and that puts everybody else in position to be able to rebound and get open shots with people helping and him making plays for everybody else and them having to overreact.

"It lifts the level of our team and it lifts the play of everybody. That's something that everybody on our team has a part in, through their own role."

Tuesday's box score showed just five points for Tucker, a typical total for the Heat spark plug. Butler totaled 41 points on 12 of 19 shooting -- with no made 3-pointers -- evidence of his aggressive offensive mentality.

Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals will tip off at 8:30 p.m. EDT Thursday at FTX Arena in Miami. The series will move to Boston for Game 3 and Game 4 and could return to Miami for Game 5, if necessary.

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