Playoffs Notebook | 5.8.18

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Final Words on McConnell

It was very much T.J. McConnell’s basketball world Monday night at The Center, and the 76ers and everyone else in the arena’s stands were thrilled to be reveling in it.

Summoned into starting duty for the first time since his only other start of the season in the Sixers’ November 25th win over the Orlando Magic (which was the 18th game of the season), the third-year point guard rose to the occasion,  becoming the eighth player in NBA history to register minimums of 19 points (9-12 fg, 1-1 3fg), seven rebounds, and five assists in his first post-season start.

The others to achieve the feat were Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Stephen Jackson, Derrick Coleman, Willie Anderson and Mitch Richmond.

Most important, McConnell’s contributions were pivotal to extending the Sixers’ season.

As if there were any doubt about the appreciation and affection the sold out crowd of 20,936 had for McConnell and his timely efforts, he received a rousing ovation, along with chants of “T.J.!, T.J.!, T.J.!” during a stoppage in play shortly after his driving lay-up made it 86-68 in the fourth quarter.

In fitting fashion, it was another one of McConnell’s determined bursts to the basket that gave the Sixers a 98-86 advantage with 72 seconds to play, and essentially put Monday’s game out of reach for the Boston Celtics.

“It was a pretty special moment, but I was trying to do anything I could to get us a win,” McConnell said of the support he received Monday from the South Philadelphia faithful. “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. I just appreciate them, and I know we all do.”

There was plenty of superlative praise directed at McConnell himself in the aftermath of the Sixers’ 103-92 triumph over the Celts in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Here’s a round up of a few of them…

Brett Brown:

“He’s got sort of unusual characteristics that you wouldn’t think would be as successful in an NBA playoff game. And all of them equal sort of a tenacity, a heart, a commitment, a competitiveness…then there’s that team thing. He’s like a throwback type of player, that he just is a tremendous teammate, incredible competitor. The human side of all of us, when you see somebody like that do well, I think, sure comes out in each of us.”

Joel Embiid:

“He just did his job. He played what, 39 minutes tonight? He didn’t take any plays off, he was pressing full-court the whole time, doing his job, running the offense, getting guys involved, making shots, layups and just doing his job.”

JJ Redick:

“He gave us a huge lift. He was awesome. He got downhill, he attacked the rim. There’s an energy and a spark when he’s on the court. He was phenomenal.”

Dario Saric:

“We know how Boston is playing, how Boston is guarding. All guards try to drive downhill and it opened the space for T.J. and T.J. just took it. Making layups and he was focused on that. [I try] to talk to him all the time, 'You need to be ready. One game you need to show up and be ready for that.' That was this game, but I believe he can repeat this in the next game.”

Ben Simmons:

“It is just something not everybody has, that fire within. He's not the biggest or most athletic guy, but he has an energy that he brings every night and is a huge part of this team. Tonight was a night where he really stepped up. He gave us the energy that everyone else was able to feed off of.”

Brad Stevens:

“He was great. He was a tough guy. He's a heck of a basketball player, and obviously, we didn't do a great job of defending him and his impact was tremendous.”

Ilyasova Moved Up

In addition to inserting T.J. McConnell into the starting five Monday against Boston, Brett Brown had another noteworthy, yet not quite as prominent, personnel wrinkle up his sleeve for Game 4.  

For the first time in the series, the fifth-year head coach tapped Ersan Ilyasova to be the Sixers’ first big man off the bench. In Games 1 through 3, that assignment fell to veteran center Amir Johnson, who didn’t play Monday.

Since returning to the Sixers, Ilyasova has proven to be productive in pairings with both Dario Saric and Joel Embiid, the club’s top four and five men, respectively. Such was also the case a season ago, during Ilyasova’s first stint with the organization.

During the regular season, for instance, the Ilyasova – Saric frontcourt pairing produced a stellar net rating of 15.0. Currently in the Playoffs, Ilyasova and Embiid have combined for an eye-popping 23.3 net rating in 92 minutes together.

The motive behind Brown’s choice to play Ilyasova ahead of Johnson Monday was all about the veteran Turk’s offensive capabilities on the perimeter.  

“With Ersan, it’s no secret,” Brown said Tuesday in Boston. “The reason we would do that is to stretch the floor, maybe hunt some threes a little bit easier. We haven’t been able to do that. I credit Boston’s defense. They’ve really done a good job of taking away our threes, and guarding our threes.”

The Sixers were held to a post-season low 26 3-point attempts in Monday’s victory, but Iyasova still made his presence felt, especially in Monday’s third quarter, when he deposited this basket.

Brown Brings Joy

That an uphill climb of historic proportions by the Sixers will be necessary to overcome Boston in the second round has been well documented.

But, if there were one head coach out there who you’d hedge your bets to get the job done, maintaining an optimistic outlook along the way despite long odds, Brett Brown ‘s name would have to be right at the top of the list, right?

Sounds like it would be if Boston’s Brad Stevens were doing the curating.

“I think the part that is most difficult in this league is when you’re not having success is maintaining a joy and desire to continue to work for yourself and your team,” said Stevens, now in his fifth season with the Celtics. “I don’t think anybody has done it better than Brett, and the way that he’s led. You can see it in the way [the Sixers] play. You can see it in the way they played before this year. Obviously, with more guys available now, with [Joel] Embiid and [Ben] Simmons healthy, and now all the older guys they’ve added, you can see the joy with which they play. Everybody quote “loves” basketball. That gets tested in an 82-game season, and if it’s extended. And it really gets tested if you’re not having success. That’s hard. I have an unbelievable amount of admiration for Brett anyways, but the way in which he’s created a culture in which they find joy is pretty special.”

For Brown, there’s a purpose to the positive thinking.

“I bet if we polled a hundred people, and you said, ‘Is it talent, or is it the mental side, the spirit side?,’ I bet a large majority of us would guess it can’t all be talent. It can’t be,” Brown said Monday. “I believe this is where I can help our team, our young players, and the people who are going through their first playoff experience the most.”

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