There’s no player in the NBA better engineered to win a Game 4 with his team on the precipice of a sweep than T.J. McConnell. His rise from undersized Arizona point guard to Sixers backup foreshadowed him leading the 76ers to a 103-92 playoff win to stay alive. He’s the “Nobody Believes in Us” card personified. Brett Brown’s decision to insert McConnell into the starting lineup of an elimination game was a surprise, but it was more than justified—and a glimpse of what the Sixers’ future might look like with Markelle Fultz.
McConnell earned Robert Covington’s starting spot, the only card Brown had left to play. In Game 2, he was plus-16 in 17 minutes, which led him to earning 14 minutes in Game 3. While Simmons missed every shot he took in Game 2, T.J. was perfect from the floor (albeit on just six attempts) in games 2 and 3. In Game 4, McConnell, as he’s wont to do, exceeded expectations again.
T.J. McConnell had an efficient 19 points on 12 shots, going 6-of-8 near the basket. Three of his five assists led to shots at the rim, and he grabbed seven rebounds and was plus-18. (@presidual) #RingerNBA pic.twitter.com/7tXHqCMBmu— The Ringer (@ringer) May 8, 2018
With a fresh fade and a slick strand of hair hanging on his forehead, McConnell fed off of the rowdy Philly crowd and pulled a Terry Rozier. He became a lightning bolt of energy on both ends, ping-ponging up and down the court. The 6-foot-2 26-year-old played a whopping 38 minutes and finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. He was plus-18, second only to Joel Embiid’s plus-22.
McConnell was effective because he evinced something Simmons and most of his teammates failed to through three losses: the type of activity and aggression that had won the Sixers 52 regular-season games and a gentleman’s sweep of the Heat in Round 1. More than that, he brought a type of confident ballhandling and playmaking that isn’t natural to the Sixers’ other backcourt players, like J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli.
Through either deceptive speed or sneaky athleticism, McConnell turned his size into an advantage, weaving in and out of the Celtics’ typically stalwart defense with enough quickness to leave them off-kilter. He blew by Rozier like the Celtics guard was a traffic cone wearing a Drew Bledsoe jersey as decor. McConnell was more than a spark, he was the Sixers’ pacemaker.
McConnell, who started for Covington in Game 4, threads the needle on the crosscourt bounce pass to Simmons for the dunk pic.twitter.com/u9rNJ4XTap— The Bitter Birds (@AdrianFedkiw) May 7, 2018
As inspiring as McConnell’s story is, his ceiling is as evident as the Sixers’ need for a guard who can create and make his own shot. That’s who Fultz is supposed to be, but this season, he’s been resigned to the bench to cheer for T.J. instead.
Markelle Fultz, the ultimate TJ McConnell cheerleader pic.twitter.com/UIhM4f7HS9— Chris Grenham (@chrisgrenham) May 8, 2018
But McConnell is providing a glimpse of Philly’s higher potential once Fultz (hopefully) returns to fulfill the no. 1 pick expectations. If his shot returns, it could be the perfect complement to Simmons’s shooting-averse tendencies. McConnell made an effort to target Simmons as he drove to the basket. He created space where the Sixers had failed to in the previous three games, and it helped Simmons get the easy buckets he needed. The Sixers’ 52 points in the paint were the most in this series so far. Hopefully Fultz and Simmons will feed off of each other much like Simmons and McConnell did Monday night.
“One of our coaches told me ‘Just hit singles,’ and that’s what I’ve been trying to do,” McConnell said in his postgame interview, which—[checks facts]—is the most T.J. McConnell thing to say. McConnell hit enough singles that his game ended up equaling a grand slam. No team has overcome a 3-0 deficit in NBA history, and the Sixers probably won’t. But for one night, their most unlikely source of hope gave them more than they could have expected.