It’s not overly hyberbolic to say the Sixers had the most effective starting lineup in the league this season. The group’s 21.4 net rating was the highest among 5-man lineups who played at least 300 minutes together during the regular season. So any time the Sixers receive any degree of contribution from their bench, like they did in Thursday night’s Game 2 in Boston, you would expect the team to walk away with an easy victory.
Of course, as that particular concoction of rage and despair in the pit of your stomach indicates, Philadelphia did not prevail against the rival Celtics. The most glaring reason for the defeat was the strangely passive play of Ben Simmons, who finished with just 1 point on 0-4 shooting, 5 rebounds, and 7 assists against 5 turnovers. Simmons was a game-worst -23 in a contest the Sixers lost by 5 points.
While Simmons was fighting through some combination of a metaphorical rookie wall and the literal wall of defenders Boston was throwing at him every possession, backup T.J. McConnell was pitching the basketball equivalent of a perfect game. Everybody’s favorite embodiment of gritness ended the night 4-4 from the field for 8 points, recorded 5 assists against 0 turnovers, and chipped in with 2 steals. His +16 plus/minus in 17 minutes was easily the best on the team. Even Boston head coach Brad Stevens was singing McConnell’s praises after the game.
Stevens: "McConnell was ridiculous. He kept the game coming back towards them."— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) May 4, 2018
My favorite play by McConnell on the night won’t even show up in his box score, but was completely indicative of the energy he brought to the table. The Celtics had numbers in transition midway through the fourth quarter, but T.J. sprinted back to disrupt the play, feinting at Jaylen Brown enough to startle him into leaving his feet and throw the ball away to J.J. Redick. T.J. would complete the sequence by hustling to rejoin the play on the other end and beautifully feeding Ersan Ilyasova under the basket for the assist.
All of which brings us to the pivotal decision by Brett Brown to return to Simmons down the stretch. With 3:39 left in the third quarter and the Sixers trailing by 6 points, McConnell subbed in for Simmons. When Simmons re-entered with 5:29 left in the game, Philadelphia was back on top by two, the lead having just been trimmed by a Terry Rozier three-pointer.
Now, on its face, this is a ridiculous conundrum. On the one hand, you have the first overall pick who, despite Goran Dragic’s belated support for Donovan Mitchell, is likely to win Rookie of the Year. On the other, you have an undrafted free agent who had completely fallen out of the rotation a month ago. 99% of the time, the choice to go back to Simmons is obvious. Thursday night just happened to be the 1% occasion when McConnell was dramatically outplaying the 6’10” Aussie.
Beyond being a prisoner of the moment, you also have to consider the fact that Simmons is one of the two top faces of the franchise, and crunch-time reps in a road playoff game represent a potentially valuable learning experience for him. I have two main counters to that idea.
First, how valuable is it for Simmons to continue wandering around in a daze for the final 5 minutes of that game? Three years from now, is he really going to look back on those minutes where he scored 0 points and had 2 assists as a time when he discovered how to shake off adversity in a tough environment? Additionally, like with the McConnell over Fultz decision, the Sixers are past the point of worrying about developmental reps. They are 12 wins from a title; they have to be all-in in whatever way possible to grab each one of those victories. You never really know how long your window for contention stays open.
The other potential concern is keeping Simmons on the bench would hurt his psyche going forward. Make no mistake, the Sixers absolutely need Simmons to turn things around if they are going to have a chance to win this series. If he sits down the stretch of a playoff game, does he begin to doubt himself? Lose some confidence going forward? I don’t know. I think it would probably be easier for him to shake off being on the bench if the team had come away with the win than being on the floor with the team having lost. But that’s obviously all based on a mixture of hindsight and conjecture. As for external pressure, people would forget much more quickly about Simmons scoring 1 point if the series was tied 1-1.
Ultimately, the decision to go back to Simmons over McConnell was an incredibly tough one. I think Brett Brown made the safe call. Losing the game with McConnell still in there and having to answer questions about leaving the likely Rookie of the Year on the bench would have absolutely been the worst case scenario from his perspective. Brown said after the game that he didn’t regret any of his rotation choices. In the moment, I just don’t believe it gave the team the best chance to win the game. Hopefully though, Brown’s decision pays dividends for the team in the long term, with Simmons turning things around starting Saturday afternoon back at home for Game 3.