Murphy: Sixers' T.J. McConnell was building to this moment

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T.J. McConnell leaps celebrating his game-winning basket with his teammates and fans.

The most revealing thing about the shot was its lack of precedent. Think about that. All of those nights beneath the frosted skylights in western Pennsylvania, the Saturday afternoons in the Atlantic 10, the Sundays in the Pac-12. How many of them had come and gone before the one that came on Wednesday night? Before fate thrust T.J. McConnell where it did?

Down by one. . .

Clock ticking toward zero. . .

Ball in his hands. . .

"If there was one in grade school, I can't remember," he said.

The fact of the matter is that T.J. McConnell once again found himself in a place he wasn't supposed to be. This was true of Arizona after his two years at Duquesne. It was true of the scouting combine after the NBA initially left him off its list. And it was most definitely true on Wednesday night. This time, the place was the baseline in the closing seconds, Sixers down one, Carmelo Anthony in his face. He dribbled, he spun, he let it go.

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"I think the chaos actually produced something probably more open," his coach said later in one of those  magical turns of phrase that is relevant regardless of scope. 

Brett Brown was a McConnell fan long before the second-year point guard's latest opportunity resulted in buzzer-beating baseline jumper that gave the Sixers one more win than they tallied all of last season, this with 46 games to play. You could hear it in the quiver in the coach's voice as he talked about a team that is quickly becoming everything this city has lacked in recent years. You could see it in the quick bite of his bottom lit that prefaced his thoughts on the night's most pertinent topic. 

"He's a Pennsylvania kid that nobody gave a chance," Brown said in the wake of the 98-97 win over the Knicks. "He tripped on an opportunity with a program that's in a rebuild mode, my 17th point guard - think about that, he's one of 17 - and you go through that massive volume of point guards and you have somebody who doesn't go away, there he is, and there's an injury, and so you give him the ball. And that's life. He seized the opportunity, and he ran hard with it."

Maybe it started in Memphis. From the moment he'd arrived for his first Sixers practice, McConnell had been known for his story. Undersized, undrafted, practically unscouted - you'd give him props for making the first run at a rec center much less an NBA roster. Yet on a nondescript night in the home of the blues, McConnell earned much more than spot on the team. During a lull in the action of a December game, Grizzlies veteran swingman Tony Allen sidled up to the Sixers' bench and inquired about No. 12. Who is he? Where's he from? Pittsburgh, huh?

And then the magic words:

I like that kid's game.

"For a guy like Tony Allen to come to our bench and say something like that, I think that speaks a lot about the respect T.J. is earning around the league," swingman Nik Stauskas said as he looked back on the encounter before Wednesday night's game.

Good stories have a shelf life. But as Allen recognized early on, and as McConnell showed in dramatic fashion against the Knicks, there is substance beneath his fluff. This was his fifth straight game in the starting lineup, a stretch that has coincided with some of the best basketball the Sixers have played all season. They entered Wednesday 4-1 in games in which McConnell plays at least 27 minutes. In those five games, he was averaging 9.6 points, 9.6 assists and 6.2 rebounds with 11 turnovers and nine steals.

"I think the team is starting to inherit a little bit of his personality," Brown said. "I think they feel that he has some toughness to his game. It's sort of drip feeding into other parts of our program. They look at him now as a starting point guard. His route to where he is, is a heck of a story, but I think that toughness spreading through the team and I think the defensive numbers that are coming out lately on our program, we're very proud of. I think he is significant piece and part of that from a toughness perspective."

It's funny. In a perfect world, McConnell might not even be playing right now. The Sixers entered training camp hoping to develop an offense that would put the ball in Ben Simmons' hands, with former Suns first-round pick Sergio Rodriguez returning from a six-year hiatus overseas to serve as a more traditional point guard. In fact, a few hours before his heroics, McConnell stood at a distance amidst the early arriving courtside crowd and watched Simmons work a two-man drill in the latest step in his recovery. Before a broken foot sidelined the No. 1 overall pick, McConnell seemed destined to fill a role similar to the one that Brett Brown described before Wednesday night's game: wave a towel, play some defense, dive after a loose ball.

"Patty Mills did that well over the years," Brown said prior to the game, referring to one of his personal favorites from his time as an assistant in San Antonio.

And if fate pencils him in as Patty Mills, you won't hear the kid complain. But McConnell has a way of raising whatever roof of expectations hangs above his head, and the more his gumption combines with circumstance, the higher the ceiling seems to grow. He thought he could play in the Pac-12, but he spent his first two seasons at Duquesne. He thought he could compete against NBA players, but he needed a last-ditch lobbying effort just to score a combine invite. He didn't get drafted, but he did catch the eye of the one coach who could give him a legitimate chance.

Think about that, and then think about how it must have felt: the release true, the flight unencumbered, the arc centered on the net. As the arena erupted and the teammates swarmed and the bass lines blared in celebration, McConnell stood in the midst of it all, the aftermath of opportunity washing over him like rain from a storm that has yet to cease. 


dmurphy@phillynews.com

@ByDavidMurphy