T.J. McConnell happened. That's how we'll look back at the Philadelphia 76ers' 103-92 Game 4 win against the Boston Celtics.
As Dario Saric got back on track with 25 points while the team grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and won the turnover battle eight to 15, it was a huge boost from McConnell's injection into the starting lineup that helped power the Sixers to a win. In 38 minutes, he finished with the second-best plus/minus on the team at +18 thanks to a career-high 19 points (9-of-12 shooting, including a 3-pointer!), seven rebounds (two offensive) and five assists to zero turnovers. With his energy, defense, selective shooting, and steady, yet up-tempo hand at point, he did everything Brett Brown could have asked for.
Nifty drives like this helped McConnell reach his career-high in scoring, attacking a Celtics defense that was a step slow at times. McConnell beat Terry Rozier — a good defender — off the dribble on multiple occasions, and as he often does to roam under the basket as a passer, he sped downhill when lanes opened up and used hesitation moves to freeze slower bigs like Greg Monroe:
While McConnell obviously isn’t a great shot creator, the Sixers have missed having someone who can create a little from the perimeter this series. And more than anything after Simmons’ passive play, they needed someone to attack with assertiveness and confidence. With a couple of pull-up jumpers and these drives, going right at the Celtics’ defense in decisive fashion, McConnell being able to fulfil that role in his own way in Game 4 made a big difference.
Another key part of McConnell’s performance was how he took pressure off Ben Simmons and enabled him to get going off the ball, something that was best for Simmons’ productivity and the flow of the whole team. On his way to 19 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, five of Simmons’ six field goals were assisted (three courtesy of McConnell). It’s just what he needed after failing to keep his dribble alive or attack mismatches, from Shane Larkin to Aron Baynes.
One of the best ways to utilize post-ups is to make them without hesitation, going straight into a move from good positioning or passing to a cutter/shooter, rather than pounding the ball and stagnating the offense. Here, Simmons was able to do that perfectly as he had McConnell to bring the ball up the floor, allowing him to dive under the basket, gain deep positioning against Al Horford, and turn for a quick hook shot:
Besides some post-ups (Simmons had a couple of nice finishes against Horford), he was able score off dives to the basket, too. Being able to use two point guards together with one as an explosive, 6'10" force inside is one of the perks of the Sixers' unconventional offense. McConnell probes around the floor well and his patient approach has not only helped him have a brilliant turnover rate, but find openings for Simmons like this:
There are only three seconds left on the shot clock when McConnell gets the ball here, so he knows the Celtics are expecting him to get a shot up. He beats a hard closeout from Terry Rozier, then goes straight up into a shooting motion to get Horford off his feet under the basket. Once he’s done that, it’s easy dropping the ball off to the now-open Simmons for a dunk.
Defensively, McConnell can make a real difference. His energy alone is terrific, while having him around more to defend Terry Rozier helped quieten the Celtics’ guard for the first time all series. Rozier finished with just 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting after averaging 22.3 points at a 50 percent shooting clip over the first three games.
In fact, through the series, Rozier has shot just 1-of-6 on 57 possessions when guarded by McConnell. That may sound like a small sample, and it is. But seeing as Rozier has managed to get off 13 shots (making eight) when guarded by Robert Covington in 55 possessions, it’s obvious how McConnell’s persistent speed helps. He’s physical, applies strong pressure on the ball, fights over screens, and helped allow the Sixers’ defense to blitz effectively in Game 4.
Of course, we can't expect McConnell to be one of the Sixers' top few scorers every night and continue leading the NBA in playoff field goal percentage at 72.4. He's a spark plug, not a high-usage power source. There was also an element of surprise with McConnell starting, throwing a curveball at the Celtics that they haven’t had to handle yet. They may be more prepared in Game 5. Either way, he doesn’t solve all Philly’s issues, from continually cool 3-point shooting to Jayson Tatum having his way against any mismatches he gets his hands on.
Plus, even after success together in Game 4, we still can’t ignore the fact that McConnell and Simmons have a -12.3 net rating and ugly 90.5 offensive rating in their 37 playoff minutes so far when they share the floor — playing two ball handlers who are non 3-point threats can do that.
However, McConnell stepping up as a difference maker is no accident. He keeps the ball moving, he knows when to attack within his skill set, he’s smart, and he defends. Everything in his arsenal has fired up the Sixers whenever he’s had a chance to play this series.
With Brad Stevens, home-court advantage, and the history of an unbeaten 3-0 series lead on their side, it’s hard to see the Celtics suddenly blowing this series. But if the Sixers can continue to make adjustments at both ends of the floor as they did in Game 4, they can at least prove that they’re learning in the moment and putting up a fight, with unexpected hero TJ McConnell in the thick of it.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.