In the early fall of 2016, before he’d ever appeared in a regular-season game, Joel Embiid commandeered the nickname “The Process,” but the moniker was always a better fit for another 76er who better personified the true spirit of the term. To look at T.J. McConnell is to see, on the surface, a walking, talking stereotype. It is to see an undrafted point guard who wears the NBA’s severest hair part and whose official height of 6-foot-2 is a generous lie. It is to see a too-slow, too-short – and, since we’re dealing in stereotypes here, too-white – nobody who got a shot in the NBA only because under Sam Hinkie the Sixers were pretty much offering open tryouts to anyone who’d ever bounced a basketball.
Yet there the Sixers were Monday night, needing a victory in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to keep their season alive, and there was McConnell, again reaffirming just how much a team studded with some of the league’s brightest, most ballyhooed young stars needs him. The Sixers did fend off the Celtics, 103-92, to push the series to a Game 5 on Wednesday night at TD Garden, and Embiid was excellent, with 15 points, 13 rebounds, and a tenacious defensive effort. And Ben Simmons looked more like himself: 19 points, 13 rebounds, confident. And Dario Saric had 25 points. But it was McConnell, a surprise insertion by coach Brett Brown into the starting lineup, who stole the night: collecting 19 points, five assists, and seven rebounds; never turning the ball over; delivering a charge to the Wells Fargo Center whenever it seemed the building and the Sixers required one.
“There’s an injection of energy that you immediately know you’re going to get with him,” Brown said. “You heard me talk over the previous 48 hours about making sure our spirit wouldn’t take a hit. I personally zoomed in and said, ‘What can I do to help the team the most?’ … There’s no better player to try to catapult the start of the game with that mindset than T.J.”
McConnell wasn’t merely an inspiration Monday night, though. As he has been all season, he was indispensable – a player whom, one could argue, Brown should have counted on more in the series’ earlier games. That crushing Game 2 loss had ended in such controversy, with the Sixers squandering a 22-point lead and regaining an advantage late with McConnell on the floor, only to have Brown ride with Simmons for the final five minutes. The Celtics rallied back to take control of the series, and McConnell continued to reveal his importance in Game 3, when it became clear that he was the only Sixers guard with the lateral quickness to contain Terry Rozier.
Though Brown did not hint at any lineup changes before Game 4, it turned out he could no longer ignore what was in front of everyone’s face. He benched Robert Covington and started McConnell, assembling a three-guard lineup that presumably would improve the Sixers’ perimeter defense. Rozier shot 4-for-11. The Celtics shot less than 35 percent from three-point range. And McConnell – who started just one game during the regular season – was a dynamo over his 39 minutes.
“I’m just trying to make him as uncomfortable as possible,” McConnell said of Rozier, “picking him up full-court, making him work for everything. He’s their engine. Everything goes through him. He gets them going.”
The same, of course, could be said of McConnell, and one of the most endearing aspects of his development is his self-assurance, his embracing of who he is and why people respond to him as they do. Yes, he’s gritty. Yes, he’s an underdog. But he’s a damn good basketball player, capable of burrowing his way into the lane or shooting a quick pull-up jump shot with a touch and confidence that Simmons doesn’t possess yet. It’s not just that McConnell helped the Sixers survive Game 4, what with Simmons struggling in this series. It’s that he allowed them to survive a lost season for No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz – the player who at a minimum was supposed to be the Sixers’ backup point guard, the player who presumably was going to cost McConnell his spot on the roster.
“This is bigger than just one person,” McConnell said. “Markelle is a hell of a basketball player and an even better human being, and I’m there whenever he needs me. Ben is Ben. He’s special. Like I said, I just tried to adapt to change whenever they needed me to.”
Monday night was just one more occasion, then, to do what he has done since arriving here in 2015. Monday night, the Sixers needed another star, and they got McConnell, and he was more than enough. He had withstood the worst of The Process, the doubts that he could play at this level, the two long seasons of so much losing, and now: In the third quarter, he grabbed a defensive rebound, scooted the length of the court, and scooped in a coast-to-coast layup, and he kept his hand high in the air and he kept his eyes on his hand, not even knowing why.
“I just stared at it,” he said, “like an idiot,” but no one looked at him that way. Soon enough, the fans in the stands were chanting T.J. McConnell’s name, screaming their adoration for the player who, as much as anyone, embodies what the Sixers and their struggle were always supposed to be.