PHILADELPHIA, PA – What has been the m.o. for T.J. McConnell since latching on with the 76ers as an undrafted free agent in the summer of 2015?
“Just constantly staying ready,” he said before he and the 76ers took the floor Wednesday at The Center.
With increased backcourt minutes to be had against the Houston Rockets, McConnell competed with the same conviction contained in his pre-game statement.
And while the the point guard’s scrappy line of 6 points (3-8 fg), 5 rebounds, 9 assists, and 6 steals wasn’t enough to spare the Sixers from a stinging 105-104 loss that ended dramatically on an Eric Gordon (29 pts) buzzer-beating 3-pointer, McConnell delivered an admirable performance.
“Inspirational” was Brett Brown’s operative word of choice to describe the 25-year old’s showing, and understandably so.
McConnell, with the Sixers’ shorthanded, was simply at his gutsy, hustling, facilitating best. His spirited play positioned the team to open up its lead in Wednesday’s first half, and also ensured that the club stayed in front as the scoreboard tightened in the third quarter.
“Really game-changing stuff,” said Brown.
McConnell wasn’t alone Wednesday in providing the Sixers with impactful contributions. Seemingly triggered by a flurry of 2-pointers early in the second half, JJ Redick proceeded to take off, en route to posting a team-best 22 points (9-16 fg, 3-8 3fg) and whopping plus-22 rating in 34 minutes. He tallied all but 5 of his points following intermission.
Joel Embiid (21 pts, 8-13 fg, 6 reb) and Robert Covington (20 pts, 4-12 3fg, 6 reb) were Sixers’ other two high scorers, while Ben Simmons finished with 14 points (7-17 fg), 7 rebounds, and 9 assists. The rookie’s driving lay-up with 3 minutes, 5 seconds to go in regulation marked the Sixers’ final points of the evening, as Houston closed the tilt on a decisive 9-0 run.
The blitz was capped by Gordon’s clutch shot from the sideline.
“To work as hard as we did, we deserved that one,” McConnell said. “Sometimes, the ball doesn’t bounce your way. You’ve just got to go get the next one.”
That go-getter attitude is precisely what McConnell brought to the floor Wednesday, and, to the Sixers’ advantage, it appeared to rub off on his teammates. The first guard used off the bench, the Pittsburgh native scratched his way to 3 steals in less than 3 minutes of action. His first two swipes, including the one captured below, came at the expense of James Harden (27 pts).
On the offensive end, McConnell had handed out 4 assists by the time the first quarter had drawn to a close. Midway through the second frame, he set up Covington for a dunk, then came back down the court to drain a stepback jumper, which pushed the Sixers’ margin to double-figures, 50-40.
Later on in the third, McConnell generated a steal, an assist on an Amir Johnson jam, and another steal that led to a Covington lay-up in the span of 23 seconds. Less than half a minute after that, he supplied Covington another dime, and in a flash, the Sixers had gone from down 3 points to up 6.
McConnell was at the heart of the spurt.
“I just want to provide energy for the team, and help us win,” McConnell said. “If it was inspiring, that’s great, but I’m just out there to do whatever this team needs me to do.”
“T.J. was the best player on the floor,” said Embiid. “Defensively, he was giving us a chance, and [him] setting up the team as a point guard is great.”
McConnell, who entered Wednesday’s outing averaging just under 15 and a half minutes per game, logged a season-high 28 minutes versus the Rockets. He became the second player in Sixers history, in addition to Michael Carter-Williams, to record minimums of 5 rebounds, 9 assists, and 6 steals in a single game.
“T.J. wins,” Brown said. “That kid is a winner.”
And mostly because of an impressive last-second shot, a win was about the only thing Wednesday that McConnell didn’t have to show for his heady efforts.
Just too good to not include in this section here.
On the heels of hosting one of the NBA’s three teams from Texas, the Sixers will visit the Lone Star State themselves their next two games. Before Monday’s re-match with the Houston Rockets, the Sixers will stop in Dallas Saturday for a meeting against the Mavericks. The Mavs re-upped with former Sixer Nerlens Noel this off-season on a one-year deal, and entered action Wednesday without a win in four tries.