Game Preview | Sometimes, Selfish Approach Best Serves Needs

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

Scene Setter:

CAMDEN - Sometimes, a selfless purpose can, in fact, lead to unintended selfish outcomes.

Or so T.J. McConnell is learning.

Throughout his basketball career, the 76ers’ back-up point guard has tried his best to stay true to the ethos of his position - handle, and distribute; set up for others, before seeking and taking your own shot.

Increasingly, however, as he reaches the halfway point of his third NBA season, McConnell has come to accept that his mindset must evolve, no matter what his pass-first instincts might tell him to do.

He has to try to score more. That doesn’t mean simply being on the lookout for more opportunities to put the ball in the basket, but actually acting on them when they arise.

The 76ers, as the past week has shown, need him.

Almost always a spark plug, McConnell assumed a particularly energizing role in Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day victory over the Toronto Raptors. With Ben Simmons in foul trouble, McConnell logged extensive minutes, en route to a career-high 18 points.

Then, Thursday night at TD Garden, without JJ Redick (left leg), McConnell again did his part to put the Sixers in the driver’s seat against another Atlantic Division foe that, in recent years, had had its way against the team in red, white, and blue. He snapped off 12 of his 15 points in a four and a half minute burst bridging the third and fourth quarters. The flurry set up the Sixers for an important 89-80 win against the Boston Celtics.

The outcome gave the Sixers just their second triumph over the Celts in 16 attempts, their sixth win in seven outings overall, and pushed the Sixers above the .500 mark at the 41-game turn of a season for the first time in 12 years.

“We’re trending in the right direction,” McConnell said afterwards. 

Him, specifically.

Never before has McConnell scored as many points in a two-game stretch - 33 - as he did in consecutive performances versus Toronto and Boston. Ask him about his scoring spike, and he’ll simply chalk it up to “doing what the team needs me to do” to win.

That explanation probably sounds like a typical McConnell-type answer, deflecting the spotlight off himself. He does admit, though, he’s been focused on scoring, when the situation warrants.  

"I think teams are playing my pass,” said McConnell, whose 35.5 assist percentage the past three seasons ranks 10th among players who have appeared in at least 150 games. “I’m still able to get assists, but I think they’re trying to make me score more, and I think I’ve done a good job finding my shots, and making the shots that I like to take and make.”

Most of these, not surprisingly, have been on jumpers in McConnell’s sweet spot zones - close to the basket, around the foul line, and at the elbows.  

Adopting the occasional me-first scoring attitude hasn’t come without adjustments. Take the final minutes of Monday’s game against Toronto, for example.

McConnell acknowledged that, down the stretch, he might have been guilty of some overpassing, which ultimately led to empty possessions that give the Raptors life. If he had to do it all over again, McConnell indicated he’d use a different approach.

“Towards the end of the game, I passed up a few [shots],” he said. “I’ve watched film, and I’m getting the reps. I thought it was a little selfish of me not to shoot those in the end, as crazy as that sounds. [If] I’m open, my teammates want me to shoot. I’m going to shoot.”

It didn’t take McConnell long - as in, like, 72 hours - to internalize his findings from film study, and put them into action. In Thursday’s third quarter at Boston, he was locked in, shooting with confidence, specifically and notably from beyond the arc.

McConnell spent a considerable amount of time this summer refining his perimeter shooting form. Now, 36 games into the 2017-2018 campaign, he’s gone 16 for 37 from 3-point territory, for 43.2 percent.

The 25-year old Pittsburgh native is a believer in the results.

“I think I should have more [3-point] attempts, and that’s on me passing up good ones, trying to get other people the ball,” McConnell said. “Realistically, that’s selfish of me not shooting open shots, because my teammates and coaches want me to shoot. How often do you hear someone practically not forcing you but telling you to shoot? I have confidence in my shot. I’ve got to shoot them, and not hesitate.”

Sometimes, easier said than done, but to the Sixers’ benefit, it’s a change McConnell continues to work on.

Opponent Outlook:

The official media notes that the Milwaukee Bucks public relations staff published for Saturday’s match-up at The Center doesn’t contain the most positive of tidbits in the “Injury Report” section. Giannis Antetokounmpo (right knee soreness) and Malcolm Brogdon (personal reasons) have both been listed as “OUT.” Antetokounmpo was named Thursday an All-Star starter for the second straight year, fetching over 2.5 million fan votes, and finishing about 100,000 votes shy of LeBron James for top overall vote-getting honors. Brogdon, meanwhile, was named the 2017 Rookie of the Year, and this season is averaging 13.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game.

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