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February 13, 2018

Sixers beat hapless Knicks behind the ultimate T.J. McConnell game

Sixers NBA
021318-TJMcConnell-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J. McConnell during an interview after being doused with water for his triple double against the New York Knicks at Wells Fargo Center.

He has killed the Knicks to such a degree that I had to ask T.J. McConnell the question after Monday night's 108-92 victory: do you have something personal against New York? Did somebody dressed in orange and blue wrong you in a previous life?

McConnell pondered the thought for a second, and then swiftly moved on. 

"'I'm just trying to play hard," said McConnell. "Call it what you want, but I'm just trying to go out there and do my job in any way I can."

McConnell did a little more than "his job" during what was often a lifeless affair at the Wells Fargo Center. The stat line is what will catch your eyes, and it's worth shining a light on the production for sure. 10 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, and six steals add up to a tremendous night at the office, and McConnell became the first Sixers player in franchise history to ever post a triple-double off the bench. As we all expected when he was invited to play for their Summer League team years ago, McConnell stands alone in Sixers history.

If the stats look great on their own, they frankly undersell his night a little bit. When players are in the zone, they feel empowered to take risks and use flair in a way they might not otherwise. That rings especially true for McConnell, who is no one's idea of a flashy player. But he reached deep into his bag of trips on Monday night, showing off with some downright sensational passes, including a behind-the-head feed to Amir Johnson in the fourth quarter.

Even still, McConnell's passing remained functional above all else. When he saw Dario Saric through New York's trees late in the game, he hit him with a rope right into his shooting pocket, allowing "The Homie" to rise up and bring the Sixers closer to victory.

It was a special night for McConnell, and everyone from his teammates to the Wells Fargo Center made sure to let him know it. McConnell claimed he wasn't really thinking about the stats or a triple-double until Joel Embiid, ever the instigator, made sure to inform him of the stakes.

"Joel just wouldn't let it go. After a rebound or an assist, he kept telling me, and then when I had nine rebounds he's saying, 'Go get another one," said McConnell. The backup guard told reporters the support he had from his teammates reflects a lot about their group: "It just speaks volumes about what kind of guys we have on our team, being happy for a player. I just love all of them and I thank them for supporting me like that."

For all the talk in years past about how Philadelphia's drastic, unprecedented style of rebuilding would kill the culture of the franchise for years to come, this group is together. It's a credit to the coaching staff but also to the type of guys who populate the locker room, from the new veteran recruits to the holdovers from the Process. They made sure to give McConnell a fitting welcome in the locker room after the game, dumping chocolate milk all over him.

McConnell may not be the headliner or anything close to the team's best player, but he is a core part of their identity. When he gets off the bench and tears like a madman after the opposing point guard, that guy and the 20,000+ fans in attendance know he's about to force you to work for every inch. It's why when McConnell hauled in that 10th rebound to make the triple-double official, his home arena erupted in a way they probably wouldn't for anyone else.

Having guys like this on your roster matters a great deal. The Sixers played down to their competition against a bad Knicks team, which is what you'd expect from a young team. Having McConnell's switch constantly turned on is part of what allows them to get away with this. His relentless work ethic is not lost on his teammates.

"I know he's working so hard every day, he's coming to work on his game before practice, he's staying after the practice to work on his game. He's a guy who pays attention to small, small details," said Dario Saric after the game. "I know [a triple-double] would one day happen, and he deserved it."

Preach.

The Sixers are holding it down on their home court

With a lot of teams allowing their minds to drift to the All-Star break in the week leading into the mid-season event, this five-game homestand had the potential to be a big stepping stone for Philadelphia's playoff push. All they've done so far is go 4-0 on their home floor with one left on Wednesday, part of a 10-game streak at the Wells Fargo Center.

There is a symbiotic relationship here that you'd have to be blind and deaf to miss. The Sixers are good and exciting in a way they haven't been in some time, which puts butts in seats. On the flipside, the fans are loud and present in a way they haven't been in years, and it makes it easy for the players to feed off their energy.

The glow of a Super Bowl win has taken hold of the city over the past couple weeks, and the positive energy has not been lost on the Sixers. Searching for an explanation for the recent home surge, Saric pointed at their neighbors across the street as a possible inspiration.

Maybe that kind of Eagles atmosphere, in the city it's unbelievable energy. When I'm walking around my apartment, in a park, when I'm going to a shop or [getting] breakfast, you can feel atmosphere is different. Maybe because of that, everybody knows Philly has maybe one of the best fans in all America, and maybe it's just because of that. 

We've got the talent, we've got a very talented team, Joel is an All-Star, Ben is almost there. We have a bunch of guys who are ready to play, who can play very good basketball. And I know, and I hope, because of Eagles and that kind of atmosphere, [we can] make the playoffs.

Players feel it, and it has been reflected in the records of the hometown teams. Between the Flyers and Sixers, Philadelphia has yet to drop a game since the Eagles won their first Super Bowl title. The city's collective psyche is unburdened. It's up to you to decide how much that actually means, though even if it's a placebo it sure seems to be working.

Talk that trash, Embiid

Robert Covington is not the sort of guy who gets an opportunity to put opposing players on a poster very often. He's more than capable as an athlete, but his lack of shake with his dribble limits his in-game dunking opportunities.

So it was a cause worth celebrating when Covington absolutely baptized Michael Beasley in the third quarter of Monday's game, and it was not enough to simply flip the ball to the ref and retreat to the sideline. It was time for Joel Embiid to join in.

I'm not saying we should sentence the official who gave Embiid a technical foul for this the death penalty, but he should at least have to answer to a jury of his peers for this crime against fun. Basketball is so great because of the moment-to-moment fun and the sudden realization you're watching a guy get turned into a highlight in real time. You're supposed to enjoy this stuff, and Embiid wears that on his sleeve.

The NBA ostensibly outlaws this stuff as a means to avoid more confrontations between players, which seems childish. Let the grown men act how they want to as long as they're not actively harming other people, and let's move on with our lives.

Are the Sixers a team with different gears now?

Brett Brown's teams have not had the luxury of taking their foot off the gas pedal in years past, and maximum effort was their calling card. This was only a bad thing in the sense that it was a reflection of their talent.

The Sixers still play hard more often than not, but you can see they do not always get up for games when their opponent is a notch below them. This was the case against the Knicks, and though it didn't show up in the final scoreline it was sort of obvious watching them play.

As long as they come out on the other side with a victory, this is okay. Philadelphia's main objectives are making the playoffs and keeping Embiid healthy for that big push. Tonight's game unfolded in a way that allowed the Sixers to play their young center just 24 minutes, which is a nice luxury for a team playing their third game in four nights.

I would attribute this to New York's ineptitude as much as Philadelphia's play, but once it was time to put the game away the Sixers took care of business. Saric hit clutch threes, Simmons did a little bit on both ends, and McConnell earned a memorable triple-double. It took until there was about a quarter-and-a-half left to get there, but they did it.

Being able to win without your best effort? A good sign for a young team. Finding that ability to hit another level within games and important stretches? That's next-level stuff, if in fact this is evidence of that ability.


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