Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Court: T.J. McConnell
After Thursday night’s 112–111 victory over the Orlando Magic, the 76ers have 19 wins on the year. Two of those have come on game-winning shots by T.J. McConnell, a guy who less than a year ago had to pay a cover charge at a Sixers bar that was giving free admission to fans with tickets. (He played in the game, so he didn’t have a ticket.)
T.J. McConnell is just about the last guy in the NBA you’d expect to hit multiple game-winning shots. He’s a dismal shooter, making just 23.3 percent of his 3s. Right now, he averages six assists and 5.9 points per game, making him one of just two players whose passing numbers surpass his scoring totals — the other being Rajon Rondo. This isn’t new; it’s just the way McConnell plays. In college at Arizona, his job was to get out of the way of obvious first-round draft picks Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. He finished ninth in the nation in assist rate and fourth on the team in scoring.
McConnell’s first game winner was by chance. After the Knicks airballed a shot, the Sixers scrambled up the floor in hopes of catching the defense off guard. They seemed to catch themselves off guard, too, with McConnell realizing there were just two seconds on the clock, having to find a way to get up a shot. Of course, it went in.
Thursday night’s game winner seemed to be by design. There was plenty of time on the clock, enough for McConnell to pass or for the Sixers to communicate and run a different play. Instead, they cleared out for McConnell, isolated on C.J. Watson. The Magic defense seemed more interested in cutting off McConnell’s passing lanes than closing in on him. He capitalized on this. Everybody else’s knowledge that McConnell is significantly better at helping others score than he is at scoring himself allowed him to get close enough to the rim to attempt one of the easier game-winning shots an NBA player will ever hit.
After the game, Joel Embiid crowned McConnell the clutchest player in NBA history. Obviously, Embiid was exaggerating somewhat — Joel has a bit of a tendency to do that — but in Embiid’s Embiidism, he revealed some truth. For 47 minutes and 50 seconds, McConnell is an uninteresting NBA player, merely helpful at accentuating the talents of his teammates. Apparently, in the last 10 seconds, he is unstoppable — so easy to overlook that he might just kill you.
Runner-up: Russell Westbrook
Both LeBron James and Russell Westbrook missed their chances at dunks Thursday night.
For James, it happened twice, each one stunning me into disbelief. The first time James immediately began pleading with a referee to indicate a foul should have been called, and I believed him. A LeBron dunk is about as sure of a thing as basketball provides, and I presumed there was no way he could have missed it unless the rules of the game or laws of nature had been broken. But replay revealed there had been no contact: James just made the mistake of slamming the ball into the orange cylinder, instead of inside of it.
When it happened a second time, the ball bounced all the way out beyond the half-court line, and again, I assumed a whistle had blown. But play continued, as if the basketball impossible hadn’t just happened. James finished with 18 points on 19 shots, the first time he had fewer points than attempts since November 13.
Russell Westbrook’s missed opportunity was different. A Cavaliers turnover gave Westbrook the ball on a breakaway, the type of uncontested dash that would typically result in Westbrook taking off from 13 feet and cramming the ball through the rim with enough force to vaporize the poor thing. But Westbrook knew he had 29 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists, and he noticed teammate Victor Oladipo could score just as easily, so he gave the ball to Oladipo, who flopped an awkward 360 layup through the rim.
Westbrook would add an 11th assist, so you can’t accuse the triple-double of being not legit. He now has 26 triple-doubles, the most any player has recorded since Wilt Chamberlain — and we still have a week to go before the All-Star Break. It will be difficult to break Oscar Robertson’s record of 41 in a season, but he’s on pace to get close.
Last year, a Cavs-Thunder matchup would’ve been appointment viewing, a showdown between two title contenders and a chapter in the rivalry between LeBron James and Kevin Durant. This year, it felt like a stopover for two teams that have their sights set elsewhere. Cleveland had a hangover from their instant classic against the Wizards on Monday; Oklahoma City hosts Kevin Durant for the first time since he decamped to California on Saturday.
This was an off night for LeBron, but the Cavs kept it close because Kyrie Irving is also really, really good. He scored 28 points and shot 4-of-5 from 3. The game was tied 99–99 in the fourth quarter, but then Westbrook scored or assisted every point in a 12–2 run. The Thunder had the 118–109 win locked up.
Cavs-Thunder might not have been as exciting as it could have been because of the relevance vacuum left in Durant’s wake. But Westbrook has filled every inch of the space left by Durant with watchability. There are no nights off from the Russell Westbrook show.