76ers’ playoff hopes remain alive
The chants for “TJ! TJ!” grew louder each time T.J. McConnell darted through the lane for an easy basket or buried a 3 to build an insurmountable lead for the 76ers. He wore a sheepish look as teammates rubbed his head on the bench in appreciation, the big moment due on an undrafted guard who plugged a role in the early Process days and morphed into a surprise postseason savior.
McConnell turned an eye-popping start into the save of the season and Dario Saric scored 25 points to help Philadelphia stave off elimination in a 103-92 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 4 on Monday night.
“If I saw a lane, I took it. If I had an open shot, I would try and take it,” McConnell said.
Yet the Sixers still face daunting odds headed into Game 5 and trailing 3-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals: No NBA team has ever won a series down 3-0.
McConnell had a career-high 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists in only his second start of the season and meshed well in the backcourt with Ben Simmons. The crowd chanted his initials each time he touched the ball in the fourth and he proved why he has been so valuable even as bigger stars have sliced his playing time.
He was just what coach Brett Brown needed in a must-win game.
“I can tell you the Philadelphia 76ers spirit is just fine,” Brown said.
With NBA teams down 3-0 having lost all 129 series, the Sixers may need more than spirit to pull off this stunner.
Joel Embiid had 15 points and 13 rebounds and Simmons had 19 points and 13 boards.
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 20 points and Marcus Morris had 17.
The Sixers spent the second half in control in what could be their last home game of the season.
Embiid was still in the mix in his mask, stirring it up with any Celtic within his wingspan. He chirped at Marcus Morris in the third and the Celtics forward flashed a “3-0” with his hands. McConnell buried a 3 for a 14-point lead that would soon make that combination obsolete.
The “TJ!” chants soon echoed throughout the Wells Fargo Center.
“It was a pretty special moment,” McConnell said of the chants. “I think we have the best fans in the NBA. They’ve been here through the dark times and they’ve certainly been here on our rise.”
So has McConnell.
Brown was desperate to spark the Sixers and benched slumping forward Robert Covington (0 for 14 combined in Games 1 and 3) for McConnell. McConnell had started 68 games combined over the last two seasons and served as an example of the type of player The Process was built on. He was an underdog, a hustler, a court general averaging 6.5 points that made him a reliable favorite for Brown. But Simmons’ emergence put McConnell on the bench, and without complaint.
With a chance to shine, McConnell zipped inside for easy buckets, made the extra pass to keep the offense rolling and made the dive for loose balls.
“How do I help my stars be stars because at the end of the day that’s what we need,” Brown said. “That’s my job.”
He turned to McConnell, that’s how.