When it comes to scowls, P.J. Tucker is All-NBA.
And yet, from a distance, when the veteran Miami Heat forward looked at Erik Spoelstra, he wondered if he could play for someone like that, someone who similarly contorts facial muscle at moments of stress, someone who patrols sidelines with a steely presence, a coach who often seems on edge.
Turns out amid this wild ride to Sunday night’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals that Tucker aligned himself with a coach open to compromise, willing to bend, even acquiesce.
“It’s trust and understanding in each other that makes greatness,” Tucker told the South Florida Sun Sentinel ahead of Sunday’s showdown at FTX Arena against the Boston Celtics. “We have that here.”
Raise the sometimes-innocuous franchise branding of “Heat Culture” to Tucker and he smiles. He’s been in enough places to appreciate the catchphrases sold far and wide by teams.
And then he confirms the reality of what this seven-month journey actually has been like, having arrived in the offseason in free agency.
Yes, players have shown up late. Yes, that has led to internal consternation. And, yes, it also largely has been excused by Spoelstra.
This has not been the Pat Riley my-way-or-highway Heat for years.
That, Tucker said, has allowed the focus to remain on the court.
“I’ve had coaches all across the board with that,” he said during a private, one-on-one moment. “And there’s super sticklers. And then other ones where it’s like, you know what, there’s other problems. Nobody’s crazy, showing up an hour late. Things happen. Most guys come ready to play, ready to do their jobs. Nothing else matters.”
Earlier this season, Tucker, 37, said that when he signed on with the Heat last summer because of the opportunity for another championship after winning one with the Milwaukee Bucks last year, he made the move even while viewing Spoelstra as “a dictator.”
“I thought,” he said of Spoelstra, “he was going to be like, ‘This way, or we’re not doing it.’ But he’s not like that. I thought he was, [when] playing against him.”
He quickly came to find otherwise.
And that, he said, made the winning even more enjoyable.
Because, he said, he previously had worked under such dictatorial types.
“Sure,” he said. “I hated it. I don’t have fun with that. It’s not something I prefer to choose to be playing for, now being a veteran. I don’t like coaches like that, just for the fact that players play. We’re out there. We have a feel for the game. Veteran players have been around and we’ve got a feel for what works and what we want to happen.
“Coaches have their things and their studies and got their beliefs in what they think works. And it’s just that contrast. There’s always that difference between the players and the coaches.”
Instead of confrontation, Tucker said there was conciliation.
In the end, that might be particularly meaningful, with Tucker holding the right to opt back into free agency this summer.
In that case, it would mean risking a relationship that works for a situation closer to the other coaching extreme.
With Spoelstra, Tucker said, there has been an allowance for players to dictate terms of the approach, provided they also show they can master such approaches.
“I think he knows how hard I work,” he said of Spoelstra. “I think it makes it a little easier when you know a guy’s out there and is going to give the coverage that he chooses 110 percent and work through it and through the progressions, if it works or doesn’t work.
“It’s kind of hard to do that if somebody’s not giving it a chance and trying all the different things.”