T.J. McConnell gave a rather blunt response when asked how he feels about people who don’t view him as an NBA player:
“That’s their opinion. People are going to say that throughout my entire career. I just have to go out there and play my game and help our team win and I can’t be worried what other people are saying.”
More or less. That’s what he’s been doing for the entirety of his Sixers career.
Yet here he is, putting up 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists in his first playoff start. Maybe zero turnovers is actually the biggest takeaway when you look over the game four stat sheet. Whether any of that is sustainable is another question, and we’ll see how Brad Stevens adjusts in game five, but right now McConnell’s insertion into the starting lineup is the key storyline as the Sixers head back to Boston down 3-1 in this best of seven series.
McConnell will start again on Wednesday night, playing alongside Ben Simmons as the point guard pair split ball-handling responsibilities in a lineup that includes Dario Saric, Joel Embiid, and JJ Redick. Robert Covington is the odd man out, correctly sent to the bench by head coach Brett Brown.
One of the things about removing Covington and playing McConnell and Simmons together is that neither is a three-point shooter. Sure, T.J. can hit a three, and he did hit a three the other night, but he’s not a catch and shoot guy and he’s not somebody who’s going to actively look to fire from 23 feet.
So that means Saric and Redick will carry the burden alongside Embiid. I know there’s a portion of Sixers fans who don’t like Embiid shooting threes, but in a lineup that features two non-shooters, his range does create space for Ben Simmons, a good rebounder, to leave the back court go post up as a power forward instead.
You see that here, where the Sixers open a possession with a pistol entry to Embiid at the three point line and find Simmons posted up on Al Horford:
It’s just a little high entry and hand-off at the top.
The Sixers run this a million times a game, and the next action usually involves a wing with some kind of off-ball screen. In this case, Embiid looks to set a pick for JJ Redick, but McConnell sees Simmons with position on Horford and just lobs it over the top instead:
Credit to Simmons to recognizing that early and going right into the post.
There was another sequence in the third quarter where Simmons again found himself posted up on Horford, but became stuck behind the backboard after a Boston double team and block.
He wriggled out of trouble by kicking the ball out to McConnell, who drove back into the lane, pulled Horford off of Simmons, and dumped it off for a flush:
That’s an example of T.J. creating off the dribble, not necessarily for himself, but always with an eye to set someone else up.
That segues into my next point, which involves his operation of the offense.
The main thing McConnell does that’s entirely different from Simmons is that he creates from underneath the basket on that “mash” routine, which is what the Sixers call those sequences where he tip-toes the baseline and tries to churn the defense and get opponents to turn their heads and backs.
Here’s an example of that mash from the regular season:
T.J. always does a nice job of keeping his head up and looking for the kick out before he makes the last minute decision to shoot.
Look at his vision as three defenders turn their backs on their man to track McConnell instead:
He just does a nice job of seeing the floor from an inside-out viewpoint and keeping his head up while he drives. And it’s very difficult to defend because you hate being sandwiched with one guy on either side of you. It’s like fighting or switching out of a flat screen or trying to keep tabs on a corner shooter while the ball is on the opposite end of the floor.
So those are two of the wrinkles the Sixers have with McConnell on the floor. Beyond that, he’s obviously a better shooter than Simmons, so Boston can’t necessarily invite him to the foul line and box him in, because he’ll pull up and take that 12-foot jumper. Simmons doesn’t trust his shot yet, so he picks up his dribble, turns around, and kills the flow the offense.
And defensively, of course, T.J. is just a pest on the perimeter, doing a nice job on Terry Rozier and not allowing anything easy. That changes the matchups and allows the Sixers to turn attention to Jayson Tatum while not having to be as concerned with defending the point guard position.
All of that said, I think Brad Stevens is a top-five NBA coach in 2018, so I don’t doubt that he’ll come up with a pretty good T.J. counter. Whatever happens tomorrow night, it’ll be fun to watch from an Xs and Os standpoint.