The word came down just before shootaround. Brett Brown pulled Robert Covington aside and formalized a decision that had been a couple of days in the making. For the first time in the last 161 games he’d played, the Sixers would take the court for the opening tip without him. It was a two-way conversation. Brown had spent four seasons keeping a young team focused through losses and injuries and, now, a 3-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It is a delicate task, maintaining the equilibrium of a locker room, and moments like this are part of it. And so Brown had a question.
How did he feel?
“Coach,” the fifth-year wingman replied, “anything that can make us win.”
On Monday night, that’s exactly what they did. Two days after a soul-sucking overtime defeat left them with little else to lose, the Sixers rolled out a lineup that had played just 22 minutes together during the regular season and bullied their way to a 103-92 win. The odds say that it will prove to be a case of too little too late, the series’ decisive moments having already passed. In NBA history, 129 teams have trailed three-games-to-none, and not a single one of them has managed to survive. It would be too tall a tale to pretend the Sixers’ outlook has suddenly changed. But if somehow that’s how it plays out, we will look back at Brown’s decision as the thing that made it happen.
Monday night was full of the feel-goods, most of them coming from T.J. McConnell, the NBA walk-on who just won’t go away. He scored 19 points in a season-high 39 minutes and helped hold Celtics dynamo point guard Terry Rozier to 11 points and 1-of-6 shooting from deep.
But amid the double-consonant chants that filled the Wells Fargo Center with McConnell’s name, there was another side of the story, and an interesting one. It had been more than two years since a healthy Covington began a game on the bench, and in that time he had established himself as one of the team’s foremost adhesives, the anchor of the team’s perimeter defense with a compelling underdog story of his own. Undrafted as a big man out of Tennessee State, he took advantage of the Process years to reinvent himself as a three-point-shooting wing. Other than Joel Embiid, nobody has been with the team longer, and, with a newly signed big-money contract, few are as invested in its future.
Yet as he stood at his locker and prepared to head north to Boston for the next-do-or-die game, Covington turned in one of the night’s great performances. He spoke at length about the spark that McConnell provided to the team, about the attitude his replacement brought to the court.
“T.J. had a hell of a game,” Covington said, “and that’s what we needed out of him.”
Wasn’t Covington unsettled at all at having to play with a completely new unit?
“It’s about adjustments at this point,” he said. “We found something that helped us win, so whatever happens from here on out, we have to stick with what was successful for us.”
Covington knows what that means. After two seasons as a full-time starter, the rest of this one will unfold as Game 4 did. Brown didn’t come out and say that he would stick with McConnell in Game 5, but he didn’t really need to.
“You understand that there is no more wiggle room,” the head coach said. “You lose and your season is done, and that’s a daunting statement for all of us. … We want to stay alive.”
To do so, they will likely need Covington to re-emerge as the player that he had been for most of the regular season. He entered Game 4 shooting just 8-for-29 on the series, including 4-for-16 from three-point range. He had his moments in the victory — a catch-and-shoot three from the right wing and a nifty assist that led to an Ersan Ilyasova layup — but he finished with just three points while shooting 1-for-5 from deep.
“I feel like the game sort of finds him as opposed to him finding the game,” Brown said. “You see me walk around on the sideline with my call sheets, it’s not like I have one play for Robert. He’s the recipient of a lot of other action. … When it becomes a half-court game, it’s clear they’re playing his stomach, it’s clear they’re trying to bend him over, it’s clear they’re trying to force him to be a dribbler. And they’re good.”
After the game, though, Covington’s focus rested on one number alone.
“This team, even before we won, we knew that we could do it,” Covington said. “There’s still more work to be done, but we just have to take it one game at a time. Can’t get too happy because we won one. We’ve gotta win three more.”