Career assists for Flyers captain Claude Giroux

Sixers find a spark

Posted by Eric Fisher On May 7

A segment of Sixers fans have been clamoring for the backup point guard to get more playing time.

They got their wish in Game 4. Sort of.

Instead of bringing Markelle Fultz, the first overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft, out of mothballs, Sixers head coach Brett Brown inserted T.J. McConnell into the starting lineup in place of Robert Covington. McConnell responded with a career-high 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a huge boost of energy as the Sixers avoided being swept with a 103-92 triumph over the Celtics in Game 4 at Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers will try to stay alive and extend the series Wednesday (8 p.m.) in Boston. The winner of this series will face the Cavaliers, who swept the Raptors, in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“Our coach told us that the team up 3-0 is 129-0 (in the series), so we have nothing to lose,” McConnell said. “We’re playing our hearts out and trying to be that one team.”

Dario Saric had his best game of the series, leading the Sixers with 25 points, but it was McConnell who provided the spark.

“He’s got a lot of unusual characteristics that you wouldn’t think would be successful in an NBA playoff game,” Brown said. “He’s like a throwback type of player. He’s a tremendous competitor and a great teammate.”

McConnell scored 19 points on just 12 shots, making nine of them, including a 3-pointer. He even grabbed two offensive rebounds. McConnell also chased Celtics guard Terry Rozier all over the court. Rozier scored a series-low 11 points.

“(Starting McConnell) was born out of a defensive (need) as much as anything,” Brown said.

McConnell’s impact was not lost on his teammates.

“You’ve got to give T.J. a lot of credit,” said Joel Embiid, who scored 15 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and got into a dustup with Rozier. “He came in and changed everything.”

Ben Simmons, who scored 19 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out five assists, also recognized the uniqueness of his backcourt mate.

“It’s something not everybody has,” Simmons said. “He’s not the biggest guy or the most athletic, but he brings a lot of energy, and we all feed off that.”

McConnell also gave the Sixers a boost during Game 2, when Simmons scored just one point. When they were briefly on the court together during Game 2, the Sixers were successful. The duo was even more successful during Game 4.

Adding McConnell to the starting lineup wasn’t the only change Brown made. The Sixers seemed to make a concerted effort to get the ball inside.

“We try to go inside to generate some ‘three’s’ as much as to go inside,” Brown said.

Embiid, Simmons and Saric all set up shop in the low post. The result was not only a more effective offense, but the Celtics got into foul trouble. Four Celtics picked up three fouls before halftime.

Perhaps nobody benefited more from the emphasis on getting the ball inside than Saric. Although he has had difficult covering faster Celtics at the defensive end, Saric used his size advantage on offense.

“There is a toughness (in Saric), not that dissimilar to T.J.,” Brown said. “Those type of people that are there for their teammates and are proud to be 76ers.

“Both of those guys tonight showed that type of spirit.”

The spirit was contagious. The Sixers seemed more energized than the Celtics. That was evident on the backboards. The Sixers grabbed 10 more rebounds than the Celtics, which was also the margin in offensive rebounds (16-6).

The spirit and energy also carried over the crowd, which chanted “T.J.!” when he came out of the game midway through the fourth quarter.

“It was a pretty special moment,” McConnell said.

Game 4 as a whole was special for a player who has had his ability to play in the NBA questioned.

“I just go out and play the game,” McConnell said. “I can’t worry about what other people say.”

And when his head coach needed a guard to provide a spark, he didn’t look to the first overall pick in last year’s draft. Instead, he summoned McConnell, a guard with an inferior pedigree but with an abundance of energy, spirit and a whole lot more.

“We need to come in with spirit,” Brown said. “We need to come in with tenacity. And T.J. epitomizes that.”


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