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Most within the Miami Heat organization insist Thursday’s season opener against the Milwaukee Bucks isn’t about exacting revenge for last season’s first-round sweep out of the playoffs.
“We all got different teams. Beginning of the year, something new,” Heat star Jimmy Butler said. “You go into it the same way you go into any other season. You try to win every game that you can and try to just be our best at the end of this thing. For right now, we’re still learning each other.”
But Thursday’s matchup against the Bucks feels somewhat personal for at least one player on the Heat’s roster, and he actually won an NBA championship with Milwaukee last season: Veteran forward P.J. Tucker.
“I mean, come on, we’re competitors. I was part of that,” Tucker said to a pair of reporters this week of facing his former team on Thursday at FTX Arena (8 p.m., Bally Sports Sun). “To not be back? For sure. You know it’s like natural human behavior. Definitely, I want to win this game better than I want to win any other game. Yes, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t.”
Tucker, 36, was acquired by the Bucks through a trade with the Houston Rockets in March last season, and he was a consistent part of Milwaukee’s rotation during its championship run. He appeared in each of the 23 games during the Bucks’ playoff run, averaging 4.3 points while shooting 32.2 percent on threes, 4.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists and one steal while proving to be an important presence defensively.
But with most of the Bucks’ championship rotation returning this season, Tucker was not retained. Milwaukee held Tucker’s Bird rights and could have surpassed the salary cap to bring him back, but The Athletic reported that the Bucks’ luxury tax bill was a factor in not matching or exceeding the Heat’s offer.
In the end, Tucker signed a two-year, $14.4 million contract that includes a player option in the second season to join the Heat as a free agent. Meanwhile, the Bucks are currently facing a luxury tax bill of $41.5 million even after not re-signing Tucker.
Tucker declined to discuss the offer he received from the Bucks in free agency.
“I was pretty surprised,” Tucker said of not ending up back with the Bucks. “You win a championship and you’re part of winning something special like that, you would expect that. A chance of it not happening? There’s a chance. It didn’t happen. Does it happen a lot? I don’t think so, not in that situation, not in those situations. You watch role guys in series in the past, usually those guys go back. So I’ll take my situation as just that, a particular situation. I move on from it and keep it going.”
Shortly after his move to the Heat became public in early August, Tucker took to Instagram to deliver an emotional message to Bucks fans. As part of that message, Tucker wrote: “Wow.. I’m still a little lost for words to be honest. Still in [shock] but it is what it is. Today took a hard turn on the road of my career but like my grandma used to tell me.. all you can control is what you can control.”
“I just felt like it for the fans, because everybody blamed me,” Tucker said of what was behind that Instagram post. “All the fans blamed me right away, not knowing the situation, what happened. So that was definitely a raw emotion, right in that moment. But it is what it is. It’s business. They made a decision, I made a decision, and we move on. It is what it is. But to say that I’m not circling every time we play Milwaukee, I would be lying to you.”
Tucker is expected to open the season as the Heat’s starting power forward. His defensive versatility, screening and three-point shooting from the corners has already impressed his new teammates and coaches during training camp and the preseason.
“He’s three times more than what I thought he was. He just is,” Heat president Pat Riley said of Tucker on Tuesday. “If I wanted to put on a defensive clinic, I would probably use him as an example on how to close out, how to get in a stance, how to slide your feet, how to stay in a play when you’re beat, how to get over a pick, how to communicate and talk. These are just on the defensive end, and how to blitz, switch and those kind of things.
“Then on the offensive end, he’s like a heat-seeking missile as a screener to try to get Duncan [Robinson] and Tyler [Herro] open. He’s one of the most unselfish players that I’ve ever been around from that context. He just wants to win. He’s going to do what he can do to help win.”
Tucker was successful in helping the Bucks win a championship in July, but just three months later he’ll be facing his former team as a member of the Heat.
“I don’t even want to talk about it,” Tucker said when asked about specifics regarding his departure from Milwaukee. “It’s that far removed from my mind now. Like it’s something that happened. Everything worked out. I’m happy where I’m at. And I move on.”
▪ Heat center Dewayne Dedmon and forward Markieff Morris returned to practice on Wednesday at FTX Arena after missing Monday and Tuesday’s sessions because of cold-like symptoms.
The only Heat player on the injury report for Thursday’s season opener is guard Victor Oladipo, who will miss the contest as he continues to recover from right knee surgery.
The Bucks listed guard Jrue Holiday as probable for Thursday’s game in Miami because of a right heel contusion he suffered in Milwaukee’s opener on Tuesday. The Bucks have ruled out Donte DiVincenzo (left ankle recovery), Rodney Hood (right foot soreness), Semi Ojeleye (left calf strain) and Bobby Portis (left hamstring strain).