There is an elevated level of excitement surrounding 76ers basketball, and rightfully so. The team sits as the Eastern Conference’s 4 seed as of today, and barring this cataclysmic inferno of a meltdown:
This would require:— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) March 25, 2018
- Philadelphia to lose out
- Indiana to lose out
- Detroit to win out
Obviously a good use of my time this morning.
the Sixers will be making their first playoff appearance in 6 seasons. This was be a good time to take a second and acknowledge the accomplishment that is in and of itself, but this is sports and more specifically this is sports in Philadelphia. Making the playoffs is great, and at the season’s outset that was the declared goal for much of the fanbase, but now that this talented but green squad has summited that obstacle the collective sights and desires of the Sixers faithful turn to a first round series win and beyond. It’s not unreasonable to theorize that the franchise is poised to venture deep into the postseason. The Sixers sport the third best net-rating in the East, the most productive starting lineup in the league and a dominant big man capable of forcing a mismatch against any team who comes in their way, but there exists real flaws that threaten to trip them up.
For the duration of this season the Sixers have carried two fatal flaws: their lack of a perimeter isolation threat who can create his own offense off the dribble, and the bench’s unfortunate tendency to malfunction and blow significant leads. Ask anyone around the league and they’ll tell you that for as much as the lengthy 82 game regular season will tell you about a team, playoff basketball is a different game. In many ways this will play into the Sixers favor as in the postseason coaches are prone to tighten up the rotations and play their starters more minutes. However, Ben Simmons isn’t going to be capable of playing 48 minutes a night throughout the course of a push to the conference finals, and in the moments where the 6’10 rookie sensation is relieved of his duties and the play initiator a great weight of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Timothy John McConnell. The same TJ McConnell who has fought from training camp afterthought to to key rotation member, and the same TJ McConnell who has not played particularly well as of late.
In 17 games since the all star break, McConnell is averaging just 4.4 points, 3.2 assists, and a steal per game. The potential to knockdown the open catch-and-shoot 3 that he flashed for much of the season has all but vanished as of late as he’s gone a measly 2/14 from beyond the arc in his last 19 games, and he hasn’t knocked one down in almost a month, a 13 game span. More alarming is the fact that T.J. hasn’t recorded just 1 steal in the Sixers last 7 outings, a staple of his game that tends to ignite his teammates and disrupt the opposition’s flow on offense. To revisit those 17 games since the all-star break, the Sixers have a solid record of 12-5, but McConnell has finished with a positive +/- in less than half (8) of those games- he’s been a -10 or worse 5 times. Now in the grand scheme of things 17 games is a relatively small sample size, and the reactionary crowd that is ready to condemn T.J to status as a fringe player in the Association should put away the pitchforks. He’s a capable backup point guard who has come through for the team in big moments, and shown he has the ability to competently captain the bench. The simple fact is that he’s not playing his best basketball here down the stretch, and if he doesn’t break out of this slump it will leave the Sixers vulnerable amidst the intensity of the playoffs where the margin for error is greatly decreased.
At his best, McConnell is flying around on defense picking opponents up the length of the floor and pestering inbounders. Come playoff time ann opportune steal or two a night while tiring out opposing lead guards is all the team will need out of him on the defensive end of the floor. Offensively, he’ll have to get into the paint and free up shooters like Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova while protecting the ball and avoiding turnovers. His ability to distribute the ball is second to only Simmons on this team, and with the second unit lacking an off-the-dribble scoring threat the bulk of their points will have to come out of catch and shoot situations. Last, there will come a handful of moments where, after a series of swings around the half-court, the ball will find its way back into McConnell’s hands on the perimeter. He’ll have to be prepared and able to knockdown an open three in order to stunt the oppositions run, or reignite his own team’s stagnating offense. The Sixers already feature one point guard who is unwilling to launch jumpers beyond the paint let alone behind the arc, they won’t be able to overcome both of their point guard’s doing so. It seems as if this all paints a rather bleak picture for T.J., but he’s been doubted countless times since entering the league. If there’s anything that McConnell has made clear during his tenure in Philadelphia it’s that he will be unafraid of a big moment or high pressure situation. So now, with the Sixers poised to challenge even the most optimistic of expectations, on a stage with a dialed up intensity, they’ll need their heart and soul off the bench to find his groove.