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(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)

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They the North

Both P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka began the season on cellar-dwellers before moving to a new team, country, and place in the standings. They’ve proved critical to Toronto’s rise, and for the Raptors to survive the upstart Bucks in the playoffs, the veteran defenders will need to prove critical once again.

P.J. Tucker had spent 11,642 minutes of his life playing NBA basketball. Eleven thousand, six hundred, and forty-two minutes of crouching into a defensive stance so low that his center of gravity seemed to rest on the floor; of turning the league’s most graceful wing scorers into clumsier versions of themselves; of lofting his shot-put of a jumper and watching it drop, often enough at least, through the net. And before he made a single NBA start, he’d played in Greece and Germany, in Italy and Puerto Rico, and in small towns in between. In Israel, he played for a team that made league history. In Ukraine, he played for a team that no longer exists.

Never, though, had Tucker played in the NBA playoffs. That changed last Saturday when, with 6:26 remaining in the first quarter, he stepped onto the floor in Game 1 of the first-round series between the third-seeded Toronto Raptors and the sixth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. He had begun his career here, playing 17 games for the Raptors in 2006–07 before beginning his overseas odyssey. That experience was nothing like this one, though. Here, now, was his first taste of the pinnacle of his chosen profession. Here was the culmination of those thousands of minutes, of those bus rides through Eastern Europe unsure if he’d ever return to the NBA, of the February trade that sent him from the bottom-feeding Phoenix Suns to the then-fringe-contending Raptors. This, it appeared from afar, was a moment Tucker would not forget.

At least that’s what I thought. But standing in the corner of the Raptors practice court the next afternoon, Tucker sets me straight. “Honestly,” he says, “it wasn’t really like that at all.” He continues: “I treated that game the exact same way I would treat a regular-season game. There’s no ‘stepping up for the playoffs.’ There’s not another level for me to step up to. I’m already at that level of intensity every night.”

Admittedly, Tucker is frustrated. His team dropped the opener, 97–83, and now, he says, he can barely manage to reach into his own memories, can barely think about the path he took to arrive here. He only wants to think about Game 2. Perhaps he’s spouting cliché. Or perhaps this is what the playoffs do: take the arc of a life and render it inconsequential. All that matters is the moment. Tucker wants to watch tape, not to reflect.

When he entered Game 1, Tucker joined another one of the Raptors’ newest additions, Serge Ibaka. His basketball experience has been vastly different from Tucker’s. As a teenager, he jumped on the fast track to European basketball’s elite, then moved to the NBA and promptly became a fixture on an Oklahoma City team that made six playoffs and one NBA Finals.

He and Tucker share a common experience, though: Both started this season with one of the NBA’s worst teams — Tucker in Phoenix, Ibaka in Orlando — and moved in February to a new team, a new country, and a new place in the standings. “It’s a huge transition,” Ibaka says, standing on the practice court the next day. “It’s a big deal to uproot your entire life like that.”

Both, too, proved critical in getting the Raptors a top-three seed in the East, and both will play massive roles in determining their postseason success or failure. After years of futility, the Raptors have recently emerged as a factor in the East, coming off a conference finals appearance last year and aiming for another this spring. But they’ve run into one of the league’s hottest teams in the first round and are currently tied 1–1 with Milwaukee. If Toronto is to survive the Bucks’ onslaught of length and athleticism, it will be in large part because of the two men the Raptors lifted from the cellar before the trade deadline.

Tucker was getting into the shower at the Phoenix Suns practice facility on February 23 when his teammate Devin Booker called out to him. “I told you [that] you weren’t going anywhere,” Booker said. It was 3 p.m. ET. The trade deadline had officially come and gone. Yet even though trades must be completed by the deadline, they often aren’t announced until later. Like, 30 seconds later. That’s when Tyson Chandler walked back to the showers. “You’re going home!” he yelled. Tucker was going back to Toronto, back to the city where he made his NBA debut more than a decade ago.

A lot had changed since then. Drafted in the second round out of Texas, Tucker arrived in Toronto in 2006, a bruising wing in a tight end’s body. Today, players like Tucker are often described with the glamorous adjective: “positionless.” Back then, he was just a tweener. He spent much of the season with the Raptors’ D-League affiliate at the time, the Colorado 14ers. In March, they cut him in order to sign Luke Jackson, a player who went on to finish with 252 points in his entire NBA career.

Tucker spent the next five years bouncing around the world. With Israel’s Hapoel Holon, he won league MVP and broke Maccabi Tel Aviv’s streak of 14 consecutive Israeli Basketball Premier League titles. He paid little attention to the NBA. It seemed less like a goal than some distant reality, a memory of another life. “I never concentrated on getting back to the league,” Tucker says. “My concentration was on being the best player I could be everywhere I went. I played with great teams. I had great years. I was 100 percent focused on those teams. Not once did I say to myself, ‘What do I need to do to get back to the NBA?’ I just wanted to compete and win wherever I was.”

Then, he got an offer to join the Suns’ 2012 summer league team. This was still basketball, and the NBA remained its pinnacle. For many players, the summer league is less an entry point to the NBA than a showcase to impress foreign scouts. Yet Tucker admits that when he went to play for the team in Las Vegas, then, finally, he allowed himself to imagine where it might lead. “That was a last, desperate heave,” he says. “That was me thinking, ‘I’ll give the NBA one more try. If it doesn’t work, I’m done with it.’”

It worked. Summer league turned into a training camp invite, which turned into a roster spot and a guaranteed contract with the Suns in 2012. Tucker became a fixture in Phoenix, and by last season’s trade deadline, he was the longest-tenured player on the team. He knew, as the trade deadline approached, that he might move. He was a veteran on a team in the midst of a youth movement. Tucker wanted to win. Phoenix wanted to rebuild. Still, when he got the news that afternoon in the shower, Tucker didn’t fully know how to feel. Yes, he was heading to a contender. At 31 years old, he would finally get to experience the playoffs. But he was leaving behind a city and a team that had given him his first real chance to prove he belonged in the NBA. “Phoenix meant everything to me,” he says. “The way I ended up there made me appreciate it even more. I had nothing given to me. The fans understood that and they loved me for it. The entire organization was the same way.”

Up in Toronto, Raptors players celebrated the acquisition. The team had given up two future second-rounders and Jared Sullinger, an offensively skilled big man, and gotten back some much-needed toughness and defensive versatility. “I know DeMar [DeRozan] is happy he’s here,” said Raptors guard Cory Joseph after the move, “because when we play Phoenix I always tell [DeRozan], ‘Good luck.’ … Better to practice against someone than play them in a game.”

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Quick enough to chase 2s and physical enough to bang with 4s, Tucker gives the Raptors lineup flexibility and another stopper to pair with DeMarre Carroll. “We’re one of the top defensive teams when P.J.’s on the floor,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said in March. For Tucker, the move has allowed him to slide further into a 3-and-D role, one he relishes.

“When you’re playing overseas,” he says, “you’re expected to be the best offensive player on your team and the best defensive player on your team. But to find your place in the NBA you just have to be smart, to think about what makes you unique. I can’t score like DeMar DeRozan. I just can’t. So then I think, ‘I’m going to be great at spacing the floor. I’m going to learn how to shoot corner 3s and make the right pass. And then I’m going to do what I’m here to do, and that’s play great defense.’”

Learning to be a specialist, he says, can be even more rewarding than assuming a team’s complete offensive and defensive loads. Tucker finds himself better-suited to mastery in a few skills rather than proficiency in them all. “You’re digging into the details,” he says. “You’re finding those small things that give you that edge. I love that.” And even though the NBA has given him the chance to pour himself into defense in a way he never could in Europe, he refuses to point to this moment as some grand culmination, some payoff for his years of work. It was never about reaching this point, Tucker insists, any more than it was about every other point along the way.

“I always knew I belonged here,” he says. “It’s not one of those things where now I can say, ‘I’m finally here. I finally belong.’ No. No. I always knew I could play this game at the highest level. There are a ton of guys right now who aren’t in the NBA who have the talent to be here. It’s about getting on the right team, getting an opportunity to show what you can do.

“That’s what I had in Phoenix. I have it here, too.”

Serge Ibaka got a call from his agent Andy Miller on February 14, the day after his Orlando Magic team snapped a four-game losing streak. He had some news: “You’re getting moved again,” Miller said. “Toronto.”

Ibaka took a moment to register the news. It was easier, he felt, getting dealt the second time. Just months before he’d been traded from Oklahoma City to Orlando. That had been shattering, the end of a seven-year run with a core that likely should have won a title, the end of a life in the only American city he’d ever called home. “We had something special in OKC,” Ibaka says. “Not only that — I had so many friends. I had a life. Seven years is a long time. Leaving that was really strange.”

Yet he talked himself into a fresh start in Orlando. There, he’d be a veteran presence on a young team. He’d take on a larger role on offense. He’d carry an expectation that he would lead. But Orlando’s mismatched pieces never found their way together, and on an unbalanced roster light on guard talent and stacked with bigs, the role expected of Ibaka never fully materialized. More than that: He experienced, for the first time in his NBA career, life on a losing team.

So he took the news in stride. “It’s a lot to deal with,” Ibaka says. “You’re making decisions about your family” — he decided to let his 11-year-old daughter finish the school year in Orlando — “and you’re getting ready in the middle of the season for new teammates, a new city, a new country, even.” He smiles. “But at the same time you have to be happy because you know you’re coming to a playoff team.”

Ibaka stepped into the Raptors’ starting lineup, providing rim protection the team had previously lacked. “He added a buzz,” Casey said after Ibaka arrived. He got opportunities to play the 5, sliding up a position to make room for Tucker as a small-ball 4 off the bench. Just like in Orlando, he now serves as a veteran voice in the locker room, the most playoff-tested player on the roster. But in Toronto, he’s surrounded by players with the talent and experience to apply the message he gives. “We’re building a house,” Ibaka says. “Everyone has to give something to build it. If you have experience, you have to share it.”

Like Tucker, Ibaka came fully prepared to integrate into a contending team. “Those are two good men,” Casey said weeks after their arrival. “That’s the difference. They are two guys whose hearts are in the right place, and that’s not changing with them.”

Through the first two games of the Raptors-Bucks series, it’s become clear that Tucker and Ibaka will both prove critical to Toronto’s chances of holding off the fast-rising Bucks. In Game 1, Tucker stepped onto the floor and up to Giannis Antetokounmpo and immediately felt the full force of the young star’s unique blend of size, skill, and athleticism. Antetokounmpo was an end-to-end marvel, leaking out in transition and taking rebounds coast-to-coast and punishing any lazy defense with leaps across the lane and toward the rim. “He can exploit angles better than any player in the league,” Tucker says. “He’s one step away from being able to dunk the ball, almost anywhere on the court.”

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

After Milwaukee’s Game 1 performance, the Raptors had the look of a team that had been sucker-punched, dazed by the Bucks’ omnipositional lineups, their endless supply of quick and active limbs. Kyle Lowry started talking about forcing shots. DeRozan spoke with a quiet gravity about what they needed to do next. Multiple players spoke about sprinting back on defense, about resisting the temptation to crash the offensive boards. Multiple players spoke, too, of getting their bodies out further on screens. It all led back to a plan to contain one man: Antetokounmpo. And for any prayer of success, the team would need Tucker and Ibaka at their best on the defensive end.

The challenge of returning to the same opponent, the same matchup, is what Tucker says he most relishes about the playoffs. “It’s just the fact that after one game, you get to come back and play the same team again,” he says. “The same guy. You focus on the last game and you bring it back and try to refresh it. You get to watch the tape and ask yourself, ‘OK, what can we do different?’”

Those changes, he says, are unnoticeable to most casual fans. “It’s showing a little bit harder on a screen. Or maybe it’s pulling over early on a double-team. All those little things that can turn an open shot into a contested shot or maybe a sloppy pass. That’s what I love.”

In Game 2, Tucker fared much better against Antetokounmpo. Where there had been space in Game 1, now there was none. Tucker’s chest seemed to be at the Bucks’ star’s navel, impeding his progress on damn near every possession. Drives ended in strips. Jumpers were contested. Against both Antetokounmpo, who shot 9-for-24, and Khris Middleton, who shot 6-for-14, Tucker forced wild misses. As a team, Toronto sold out on limiting transition buckets, and save for a few exceptions (like this one — sorry, Patrick Patterson), the Raptors played the angles in the half court perfectly, denying penetration and granting open jump shots that Antetokounmpo rarely took.

And still — it almost wasn’t enough. Even with Tucker at his best, even with steady offense from DeRozan and excellence from Lowry, the game came down to the final seconds before Toronto held on to win, 106–100. In the second half, it was Ibaka who anchored the Raptors on both ends, denying both Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker with emphatic blocks and hitting three critical 3s.

Now the series moves to Milwaukee. The Bucks are the league’s newest darling, a team that seems primed to steal this series. Ibaka and Tucker have traveled vastly different paths to this point, yet both were brought to Toronto for exactly this moment, for a time when a team heavy on skill and scoring would need injections of defensive toughness.

“This,” Tucker says of the moments in between playoff games, where he gets to think through his own adjustments, “is the fun part.” He is 31 years old and has now played 11,699 NBA minutes. Only 57 of them have been in the playoffs. Along with Ibaka, and with the rest of a team clawing its way toward contention, the joy comes from finding a way to play a few hundred more.

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