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Toronto Raptors forward P.J. Tucker (right) has his work cut out for him trying to defend six-foot-11 Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (second from left). (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Raptors forward P.J. Tucker (right) has his work cut out for him trying to defend six-foot-11 Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (second from left). (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tucker’s long road to NBA playoffs took him back to Raptors Add to ...

P.J. Tucker has good reason to wear the No. 2 for the Toronto Raptors.

The gritty defensive specialist, who was acquired by the team at the trade deadline, wears it because this is his second go-round in Toronto. The Raptors drafted Tucker in 2006, but released him nine months later. For the next five years, he made basketball pit-stops in the NBA’s D-League and all across Europe, trying to get back to the NBA.

It’s rare for a player to return to the league after such a long odyssey and become a big impact guy. But that’s what Tucker has become. He is one of the premier defenders for a Raptors team trailing the Milwaukee Bucks 0-1 in their first-round playoff series and trying to figure out how to shut down superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“I guess it’s kind of like a storybook. I went through a lot to get to where I’m at, to be in this situation – a great situation here in Toronto,” Tucker said on Sunday as the team prepped for Game 2. “I feel like we have something special that we can make work. Everybody talks about it: starting out here, getting cut, coming back and having an effect on the team now. It’s pretty cool, I guess.”

Tucker was a standout at the University of Texas – where he also wore No. 2. He was the 2006 player of the year in the Big 12 Conference and the Raps went on to draft him 35th overall. The rookie only played 83 minutes with the Raptors that season and spent much of his time with the Colorado 14ers of the D-League. The Raps released him in March to make room for Luke Jackson.

He was hard-working, bright, a great rebounder and defender, but couldn’t hit the corner three like he can today. The Raps simply never found a niche for him.

Tucker decided to play overseas. He began with Hapoel Holon of the Israeli Basketball Premier League and won the MVP Trophy as he led his team to a league title, ending Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 14-year streak as champs. From there, he played in Ukraine, Italy and finally, Germany, where he helped Brose Baskets to a championship in 2012 and was Basketball Bundesliga Finals MVP.

For five years, he rode a lot of buses in Europe and often had to wait on delayed paycheques, but made the most of his play.

“Some guys fear going overseas because they think they’ll be out of sight and out of mind, but P.J. had the courage and the confidence that he would perform over there and still get noticed,” said his agent, André Buck of Arete Sports Agency. “He kept grinding over there, even in the frustrating moments, and he improved his shot tremendously while also winning championships. I talk about P.J. to other guys who could potentially go on the same journey. I’ve been in the business a long time and represented a lot of guys, but I don’t know if I’ve ever had another guy who is that kind of fighter.”

Tucker got back to the NBA in 2012 when the Phoenix Suns signed him. He wore No. 17 there to signify the mere 17 games he got to play during his rookie NBA season.

The Suns never made the playoffs while he was there, but he quickly built a reputation as the kind of lock-down defender a contender could use. In February, the Raps acquired him in the dying minutes of trade-deadline day, in exchange for Jared Sullinger, second-round draft picks in 2017 and 2018, and cash consideration.

“Over the last two years there were many teams who inquired about P.J. and tried to make moves to get him, and most of the teams who were interested were competing for championships,” Buck said. “He seems to be a guy who attracts that type of team.”

He couldn’t wear No. 17 in Toronto because that belongs to Jonas Valanciunas, so No. 2 seemed fitting. The Raptors wanted veteran leadership from the 31-year-old Tucker and hoped he would frustrate opponents with his defence the way he had done defending DeMar DeRozan in recent years.

“It’s not trying to take over and be impactful. You don’t try to do that. You just be yourself,” said Tucker of fitting in with his new teammates. “Just add leadership, talking. We have guys who aren’t that talkative. DeMar’s not a big talker. DeMarre [Carroll] is not a big talker, especially out on the floor, he’s more of a quiet guy. So for me it’s just running my big mouth.”

Tucker played in 418 regular-season NBA games before Saturday, his first postseason experience. Now he’s relishing the chance to be locked in a series with an opponent he can study in-depth and make adjustments for.

“He had thoughts and ideas as far as how to do things. He had lots of input,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s a very intelligent basketball player. He understands that he’s just not a tough guy; he knows how to play. He has a great understanding of the league and who he’s playing against.”

Tucker, anxious to dissect more film on Antetokounmpo and the Bucks on Sunday, didn’t have much time to pat himself on the back for his hardworking life story.

“Right now that’s the last thing on my mind,” Tucker said. “Because we’re down 1-0 against Milwaukee and we shouldn’t be.”

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