On a defensive hot streak, more challenges await Suns forward P.J. Tucker

Dec 15, 2016, 6:00 AM | Updated: 3:15 pm

Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker (17) works against New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) in ...

Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker (17) works against New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016, in Phoenix. (David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic via AP)

(David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic via AP)

Showing big fight in an overtime win again their former head coach may have been the highlight of the Phoenix Suns’ season to this point, but the Suns can only hope Tuesday’s game is viewed as a turning point in their season.

That’s no sure thing for such an inconsistent club, yet Phoenix’s 113-111 victory should be marked as, at least, an affirmation that forward P.J. Tucker hasn’t lost his old form.

His recovery from offseason back surgery kept him sidelined through the preseason, and he began the regular season looking stiff.

It’s day and night compared to how Tucker has moved about the last two games.

Tucker played a hand in holding the NBA’s then-scoring leader, Anthony Davis of the Pelicans, to 14 points on 4-for-17 shooting along with three turnovers Sunday. On Tuesday, the Suns forward shadowed Carmelo Anthony and held him to 3-for-15 shooting and 13 points.

Teammate Jared Dudley is already throwing coals into the flames of his already-firey teammate.

“I agree with that,” Suns GM Ryan McDonough said of Dudley’s pumping up of his teammate. “Such a weapon for us to have. We’re talking (against) future Hall of Famers.”

Though he is just rounding into form, the numbers back up Tucker’s strong defense throughout the year. Per NBA.com’s tracking data, he is holding opponents who have averaged 44.4 percent shooting for the year to 40 percent when Tucker is defending them — in other words, 4.4-percent below their season averages.

Of players who have both played 15 or more games and defended an average of seven or more attempts per game, that’s 11th-best in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage. It’s 22nd-best considering differential between what a defender has allowed and the opponent’s average.

Suns coach Earl Watson opened his postgame press conference Tuesday night by complimenting Tucker’s contribution before calling Anthony the best one-on-one player in the NBA and adding for effect, “it’s not even close.”

The latter statement is far further from the truth than the former.

Place an asterisk on Anthony’s age catching up to him, but he’s still an elite scorer the Knicks felt comfortable putting in a high-post isolation with Tucker on his back. Each time they did, Tucker pushed the New York forward out of catching the ball in his favorite spots early. He then stayed in front of Anthony late.

As you’ll see in the clip below, Tyson Chandler and the Suns bigs were lurking in support if Anthony drove to the paint.

Rarely, they needed to bail Tucker out.

“I’m finally getting my legs back, finally getting full-strength being able to move my feet,” Tucker said after it showed. “Getting back 100-percent is one thing.”

There’s a reason the 2017 free agent could be a trade chip this year. Contenders could use a player like Tucker to stop the likes of title-chasing teams who run out LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Blake Griffin. The Ringer’s Bill Simmons pointed out as much Tuesday.

For the Suns at present, getting Tucker back to full strength and the return of T.J. Warren could vastly improve what’s been an objectively poor one-on-one defensive team.

While Tucker may not have the speed to keep the NBA’s elite athletes out of the paint — especially of the guard variety — he has proven masterful the past week at freezing isolation attempts against him. Like Anthony, Davis caught the ball on the elbows and even attempted to brush Tucker off screens before facing up.

Tucker bothered shots often and even ripped the young forward twice.

The imminent return of Warren complicates matters a bit — Tucker’s thriving defense and Warren’s offense might best help the Suns to bring the younger forward off the struggling bench. But starting or not, Tucker will have more chances ahead to show he’s back.

Upcoming he faces, let’s say, more agile competition than Anthony or Davis.

The Suns host Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs on Thursday, visit Andrew Wiggins and the T-Wolves on Monday and then have two games against MVP candidate James Harden and the Rockets on Dec. 23 and 26.

How Tucker handles those assignments could be a sign he’s not yet ready to take himself out of the running as one of the NBA’s least-appreciated perimeter defenders.

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