McConnell's rare start makes huge difference for 76ers

NBA.com Global on May 08, 2018 04:01 PM
McConnell's rare start makes huge difference for 76ers
Philadelphia 76ers' T.J. McConnell (12) and Joel Embiid celebrate during the second half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, Monday, May 7, 2018, in Philadelphia. Philadelphia won 103-92. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

PHILADELPHIA – T.J. McConnell probably wouldn't be in the Philadelphia 76ers' rotation if No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz didn't have his issues (whatever they were) this season. Heck, McConnell might not be in the league if it weren't for "The Process," four years of mostly bad basketball where fringe NBA players were given opportunities in Philadelphia they wouldn't have gotten anywhere else.

McConnell, undrafted out of Arizona in 2015, was signed to a cheap four-year contract by then-general manager Sam Hinkie. Because Hinkie didn't sign any veteran point guards that summer, McConnell got a chance to play right away. And he was good enough to stick around. Three years later, surrounded by teammates with a lot more talent, McConnell kept the Sixers' season alive by providing a huge spark in a 103-92 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Sixers coach Brett Brown has noted multiple times during this postseason that his team had the best starting lineup in the league. Philly outscored its opponents by more than 21 points per 100 possessions in 600 minutes with Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid on the floor together, the best mark among 29 lineups that played at least 300 minutes in the regular season.

But with his team down 3-0 and the starting lineup having been outscored by 17 points in its 46 minutes over that span, Brown was willing to make a change. Covington was out and McConnell was in. And though Covington was the league leader in deflections and a candidate for first-team All-Defense, the change was primarily about that end of the floor.

"We want to stay alive," Brown said afterward. "When you start assessing where are the problems, there are some problems matchup-wise that we start the game with. You're always wondering who has [Terry] Rozier, as an example."

Through the first three games, Ben Simmons had been the primary defender on Rozier, who was averaging 22 points on an effective field goal percentage of 64 percent. But on the minutes that McConnell guarded Rozier, neither the Celtics' point guard nor the Celtics as a group scored as efficiently as they do on average, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

Beyond that, the Sixers were a plus-20 in McConnell's 38 minutes and a minus-44 otherwise through the first three games. Brown may have cost his team Game 2 when he chose to play Simmons instead of McConnell down the stretch.

But Monday (Tuesday, PHL time), with McConnell as his primary defender, Rozier scored just 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting. More important: The Celtics scored just 18 points on the 29 possessions in which the two were matched up.

"I'm just trying to make him as uncomfortable as possible," McConnell said of the assignment, "picking him up full court and making him work for everything. He's their engine. Everything goes through him and he gets them going."

"There's a tenacity with his defense," Brown said of McConnell. "We ended up having to put him on [Jayson] Tatum."

Indeed, the 6'2" McConnell spent some time defending the 6'8" Tatum, who was the only Celtic able to do much offensively in Game 4. But McConnell didn't just make an impact on defense, adding a career-high 19 points, five assists and two offensive rebounds. His 39 minutes were also a career high, and more than he played in Games 1-3 combined.

"Honestly, I just thought I was letting the game come to me," McConnell said. "I wasn't trying to do too much. If I saw a lane, I took it. If I had the open shot, I took it. I was just trying to find my teammates, as usual."

There could be an issue playing McConnell and Simmons together, in that they've combined to make three three-pointers over the last two months. And they'd played just 13 total minutes together through the Sixers' first eight playoff games. But on Monday (Tuesday, PHL time), the pair got to the basket to the tune of 12 points apiece in the restricted area. The Sixers' adjustments went beyond the lineup change; they also ran more high pick-and-roll with their ballhandlers.

"It just kind of freed up [T.J.] and Ben to get going downhill," J.J. Redick said.

On defense, the Sixers were more aggressive. They didn't blitz pick-and-rolls the entire night, but a second-quarter stretch in which they did threw the Celtics out of rhythm and gave them control of the game with an 11-0 run. In total, it was Boston's worst offensive game of the series.

For Brown, the aggressive defense was tied to the lineup change. Asking his team to blitz pick-and-rolls is asking them to play with more energy than if they were continuing to switch on every screen.

"We need to come in with a spirit," he said. "We need to come in with a tenacity. T.J. epitomizes that, so we start him. To declare that to a team – and you're fighting for your life – to then be able to put them in an environment that lets them do it makes more sense to me as a coach."

So does starting McConnell again Wednesday in Game 5 (Thursday, PHL time).

"You'd think we'd go with it, wouldn't you?" Brown laughed. "I don't think it's gimmicky. I think it's real."

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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