NEW YORK — The Sixers won on Christmas Day in Madison Square Garden. Joel Embiid and JJ Redick combined for 49 points on a day when both were a game-time decision because of lingering injuries.
None of that was at the forefront of Brett Brown’s mind following the holiday matinee showcase.
It was a 15-point performance from reserve point guard T.J. McConnell that stood out the most to the Sixers coach.
“I think he was the MVP of the game,” Brown said after the Sixers’ 105-98 win over the New York Knicks.
A 15-point scoring output is not the most significant stat line. But it wasn’t just his scoring. McConnell added five rebounds, four assists, and two steals, all without committing one foul and with giving up just one turnover.
Brown noted that a lot of what McConnell does doesn’t show up in the box score. McConnell’s main directive when he enters the game is to push the pace and infuse his team with energy.
As far as he sees it, he wasn’t trying to be a hero or garner flattering words from his coach on Monday, he was just doing what he was supposed to do.
“I just wanted to give us a spark. I appreciate the compliment, but I’m just trying to do my job,” he said.
It’s no secret that Brown is a fan of McConnell’s. Before the season, when all the talk was about Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz, Brown made a point to say that there was no way that McConnell wouldn’t be on the floor and that he would find a way to fit McConnell into the rotation.
McConnell has had nine double-digit scoring games this season, and in six of them, it’s made a world of difference as the Sixers came away with the win. Two losses were during the Sixers’ recent losing streak — in Chicago and at home against Sacramento. Those were ugly games, and McConnell was not at fault for the losses.
Brown said that he coaches McConnell harder than anyone else on the Sixers and that he’s proud of how far he’s come. After going undrafted in 2015 and surviving the tanking seasons, the University of Arizona product has stayed a vital part of Brown’s system and a major contributor to the team’s success.
“My dad coached me like that and when I made the team, [Brown] told me, ‘I’m going to coach you like your dad coached you’ and that’s why we’re so close,” McConnell said. “The way he coaches me, he gets on me and I kind of feed off that and try to give energy.”
That energy was on display in a big way in the third quarter Monday. McConnell scored eight straight Sixer points to close out the quarter and also hit a jumper in the fourth to give the Sixers a nine-point lead, their largest of the game.
“He was really important. That third-quarter stretch when we made a run he was a big part of it, probably the main part of it,” Embiid said of McConnell’s performance. “That’s the type of guy he is. He’s going to come in, play hard, and put stamps on the game.”
In addition to maintaining an important role for the Sixers, McConnell continues to improve his game. He is shooting a career-best 52.3 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from three.
The significance of the win for McConnell went deeper than his individual contribution. After a five-game losing streak and losing nine of the last 10, McConnell said the win was needed and the stage made it that much more special.
“It feels a little better for us since we’ve been struggling,” he said. “And it’s on Christmas Day.”