Time to stop being surprised by T.J. McConnell

Time to stop being surprised by T.J. McConnell

HOUSTON — The time has come to expect strong performances from T.J. McConnell, not treat them as exceptions. 

McConnell entered the league undrafted three years ago as an underdog. He had to fight to make the Sixers' roster, let alone stay on it. For a long while, each notable game raised eyebrows as he established a place for himself in the NBA.

That ‘underdog label, though, has faded by now. 

“You can categorize me however you want, as a guy that stays ready,” McConnell said Sunday. “I know in the back of my mind I belong in this league and I do my job at a high level.”

McConnell has proved to be a reliable understudy waiting to step in when his name is called. Need a point guard in a pinch? Call on McConnell. Have to change starters just months into the season because of injuries? McConnell can handle that. Now he is carving out his own individual role, not just substituting for someone else's. 

McConnell has received a bump in playing time in the absence of Markelle Fultz, who is out indefinitely with soreness and scapular muscle imbalance. Brett Brown knows what he's getting when he turns to the point guard he has referred to as a "marine." 

McConnell averaged 29.5 minutes in the last two games without Fultz available. He posted 15 points, eight assists, and four rebounds in the Sixers' victory against the Mavericks on Saturday. In doing so, he became the first NBA player this season to reach those totals off the bench. McConnell also tied a career-high in field goals made (7 for 10). Brown showed confidence in McConnell by playing him for nearly the last eight minutes of the game as the Sixers and Mavericks fought down the stretch. 

"He's a winner," Brown said Saturday night. "Our guys love playing with him. He plays with the spirit that we want our team to be recognized for. ... He played big minutes and was a significant contributor in the win."

It was only this past summer that McConnell’s future with the Sixers was questioned — yet again — by some skeptics as the team added Fultz and both Ben Simmons and Jerryd Bayless returned from injuries. McConnell is more of a traditional point guard while the others were expected to add extra offense. The competition at the one spot was even steeper than in the past, but that didn’t shake McConnell.

“I took a step back and looked at what this team needs,” McConnell said. “I really worked on my shot a lot. It’s just about confidence in me shooting when I’m open. I’m going to continue to do that and continue to be whatever this team needs me to be.”

McConnell is practicing on extending his range while putting his teammates first. He had dished a total of 17 dimes in the past two games and is thriving in a system with additional shooters. 

McConnell has an obvious chemistry with his teammates on the court, often pulling them aside during timeouts and free throws. That translates into his evenly-distributed ball-handling. Of his 28 assists thus far, he has found nine different teammates: Robert Covington (six), Amir Johnson (five), Bayless and JJ Redick (four each), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (three), Simmons and Dario Saric (two each), Joel Embiid and Justin Anderson (one each), according to NBA.com. 

"It makes my life easier with good players," McConnell said. 

McConnell is making Fultz's injury easier on the Sixers, too.

Rockets extend streak as Butler exits with injury

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Rockets extend streak as Butler exits with injury

HOUSTON -- James Harden scored 31 points and the Houston Rockets won their 11th straight game with a 120-102 victory Friday night over the Minnesota Timberwolves, who lost All-Star Jimmy Butler to an apparent right knee injury.

Butler left the game late in the third quarter. After grabbing a rebound late in the third quarter, he pivoted and planted hard on his right foot before collapsing and grabbing his right knee. He was on the floor for at least three minutes before he was carried off the court by two teammates. He appeared to avoid putting weight on his right leg when heading to the locker room.

A Timberwolves official said during the fourth quarter that Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau would provide an update on Butler's injury following the game.

Clint Capela had 25 points and 11 rebounds for Houston, getting his 10th double-double over the past 13 games. Chris Paul added 14 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

The Rockets trailed for much of the first half before going ahead to maintain the NBA's best record.

Andrew Wiggins led Minnesota with 21 points, and Jeff Teague and Karl-Anthony Towns both had 18 points. Towns added 13 rebounds (see full recap).

Davis sensational in Pelicans’ OT victory over Heat
NEW ORLEANS -- Anthony Davis had 45 points, 17 rebounds, five blocked shots and five steals, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Miami Heat 124-123 in overtime Friday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Goran Dragic scored 30 points and Dwyane Wade hit two runners to give the Heat the lead twice in the last 36 seconds of overtime, but Davis responded to the first with a layup as he was fouled, and Jrue Holiday answered the second with a runner in the lane with 7 seconds left.

Wade had one last shot for the win with Holiday defending him closely. It bounced off the rim to Josh Richardson, whose rushed put-back missed the basket as time expired in Miami's third straight loss.

Davis, who has scored no fewer than 38 points in a game during New Orleans' winning streak -- and 42 or more three times -- raised both arms in triumph as he looked up at the jubilant crowd, and then exchanged high fives with fans along the court.

Holiday finished with 29 points and nine assists, connecting with Davis on a couple of alley-oop dunks. Ian Clark scored a season-high 21 points and Nikola Mirotic capped his 10-point, nine-rebound performance with a crucial 3 in overtime.

Hassan Whiteside had 19 points and 16 rebounds before fouling out in overtime when he hacked Davis on a put-back attempt. Davis hit both free throws to tie it at 117, and then gave New Orleans a brief lead with his fifth alley-oop dunk of the game on a fast-break lob from Holiday with 1:10 to go. Wade had 16 points, while Richardson and Tyler Johnson each scored 15 points (see full recap).

Balanced Celtics rout Pistons
DETROIT -- Kyrie Irving scored 18 points and rookie Daniel Theis added a career-high 19 to lift the Boston Celtics to a 110-98 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Friday night.

Jayson Tatum scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half for the Celtics, who went into the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak but returned with a solid win on the road. Boston took control by outscoring the Pistons 38-21 in the second quarter.

Blake Griffin scored 17 points for Detroit but shot just 5 of 19 from the field.

Theis eclipsed his previous career high of 12 points. He played an important role after Aron Baynes, the starting center for the Celtics, went to the locker room in the first half with left elbow soreness. Baynes ended up playing only 2:39, but Theis shot 8 of 10 from the field and had seven rebounds.

Ish Smith made his first eight shots and finished with 20 points for the Pistons. Detroit led 39-37 in the second quarter before a 21-5 run by Boston. The Celtics were ahead 61-49 at halftime.

The lead was only four late in the third before Boston scored seven straight points -- five by Irving. The Celtics broke the game open at the start of the fourth (see full recap).