76ers MEDIA RELEASE
Looking for some extra grit with your season on the line?
The 76ers have a guy for that.
In addition to wearing his heart on his sleeve, this is a guy who can also facilitate, drive, hit pull-ups, defend, and rebound, too.
On a night the specter of elimination hung above a sold out crowd at The Center, T.J. McConnell proved to be everything the Sixers needed to stay alive.
From undrafted free agent, who tried out for over a dozen teams three summers ago, to instant post-season savior, the tough-as-nails Pittsburgh spirit animal fueled the Sixers’ season-saving 103-92 victory over the Boston Celtics.
With the Sixers seeking to mix things up down three games to none in the second round, McConnell was moved into the starting line-up for his team’s most important game to-date. The 26-year old responded by scoring a career-high 19 points on 9 of 12 shooting, while also adding seven rebounds, and five assists.
“The obvious is the obvious,” Brett Brown said of the fallout from Monday’s starting line-up shuffle. “It’s the way he plays. It’s an injection of energy that you immediately know you’re going to get with him.”
The pay-off for Brown’s roll of the dice? The chance to go back to Boston, and battle the Celtics again on Wednesday in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In all likelihood, Brown will stick with McConnell in a starting role.
“Just one game at a time,” McConnell said measuredly following Monday’s win. “We can’t look ahead, and try to do too much. We got to take it one possession at a time each game, and fight like it’s our last, because it quite possibly could be our last game. We really have nothing to do, but go out there and fight and execute.”
n the aftermath of a stinging Game 3 overtime loss that ushered in Monday’s win-or-go-home proposition for the Sixers, Brown spoke frequently about the importance of preserving – and emboldening, to a certain degree – the Sixers’ resilience.
The ingredient, the fifth-year head coach felt, would be vital to any chances the Sixers had of pulling off the never-before achieved feat of overcoming a 3-0 series deficit.
McConnell provided the edge Brown was seeking, and then some. The Arizona product was informed of his starting assignment by assistant coach Lloyd Pierce at Monday’s mid-afternoon walkthrough at the arena.
“I just switched my mindset around to knowing I’ll probably be playing a little bit more minutes, and just [having] to be ready,” said McConnell.
“You heard me talk for the previous 48 hours of making sure our spirit didn’t take a hit,” said Brown. “[We] tried to focus on that as much as anything. There’s no better player to help catapult the start of the game with that mindset than T.J. The decision was based on a lot of other things, but that was the main thing, just the energy and the spirit.”
As influential as McConnell’s intangible contributions were in Monday’s game, make no mistake about it – he left his imprint in plenty of other areas as well.
For starters, McConnell made it known right off the bat that he was going to do his darndest to make life difficult for his primary cover, Terry Rozier, Boston’s feisty, tireless point guard who had hit 13 of 26 threes in three match-ups against the Sixers.
Not only did McConnell have a hand in holding Rozier to 4 for 11 shooting, and 1 for 6 from the perimeter, he was also used on Jayson Tatum, the series’ leading scorer.
With McConnell prominently in the mix, the Sixers Monday turned in arguably their best defensive showing yet of the series. They were aggressive, disruptive, and physical, limiting the Celtics to 41.3 percent from the field, while creating 15 turnovers and 16 deflections.
McConnell came up large on several other fronts in Game 4. He helped tighten up the Sixers’ ball security (they committed 10 turnovers, he committed none), an encouraging development given the way Saturday’s Game 3 ended.
On top of that, McConnell was the lynchpin for the Sixers’ dominance on the interior Monday. For the game, the Sixers outscored Boston 52-30 in the paint.
Fourteen of McConnell’s 19 points came in the paint. By playing on the ball, and serving as another ball-handling, play-making option, he allowed Ben Simmons to post up around the basket with greater effectiveness and frequency.
In a series that, up until Monday, had seen Boston take away Simmons’ inside scoring opportunities, the rookie’s Game 4 shot chart was a welcomed sight.
“The energy that T.J. brought was huge for us, and he stepped up,” said Simmons, who finished with 19 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists for his fifth double-double of the post-season. “I think everyone fed off that energy, and we really took care of business. Nobody was lacking. Everyone was picking each other up, and playing together.”
It was the precise antidote for the Sixers’ previous second-round ails.
“Just trying to do everything I can to help this team win,” McConnell said. “That’s what I tried to do.”
Done and done.
It was a slow burn, but the Sixers finally got Monday’s game to point where they were in clear control late in the third quarter. Following a missed putback attempt by Ersan Ilyasova, Joel Embiid grabbed an offensive rebound of his own, and cranked out a hard two-handed jam at the front of the rim to put the Sixers ahead, 73-62. With just under three minutes remaining in the frame, the basket punctuated a 7-0 run, gave the Sixers their then-biggest lead of the night, and prompted a Boston timeout.
“I feel like we got something out of this game,” said Embiid, who notched 15 points, 13 rebounds, and a game-high plus-22 rating. The double-double was his sixth in a row.
After the dunk, Embiid and his teammates never led by less than 10 points the rest of the way.