Ben Simmons has been an invaluable motor for the Sixers. From running the offense to dishing savvy no-look passes to pulling down rebounds for 11 double-doubles, he leaves holes all over the floor when he isn’t on it.
T.J. McConnell filled those gaps, and then some.
The backup point guard found himself in familiar territory when he was called upon to start for an injured player. Simmons missed the game because of left elbow soreness sustained in Wednesday’s win over the Trail Blazers. McConnell had done this plenty of times over the last two seasons, but on Saturday night, he took it to another level in the Sixers' 130-111 win over the Magic (see observations).
McConnell recorded his sixth career double-double with 15 points and 13 assists. He rounded out his 37-minute performance with seven rebounds, three steals, a block and just one turnover.
“He was amazing,” Joel Embiid said.
McConnell won’t brag about this game. He won’t acknowledge how statistically strong he was or take credit for the Sixers blowing out the Magic. That’s one of the reasons why McConnell has been so successful. It’s always been about his teammates.
“I was just finding open guys and they were making shots,” McConnell said. “It’s that easy. I don’t want to overcomplicate it. Just running the offense and finding the shooters and trying to find the big fella too.”
McConnell found one shooter more than others. He dished five assists to JJ Redick, four of which were for first-half treys. That chemistry factored into Redick’s game-high 29 points and 8 for 12 long-range shooting. Redick also set a Wells Fargo Center record for most three-pointers in a half (six).
"We’re just kind of cutting and moving around his penetration and he kind of uses that," Redick said. "We call it ‘Nash,’ where he dribbles underneath the basket and back around as just a way to sort of create action for us."
Brett Brown attributed the cohesion between McConnell and Redick to their similarly “high motors" and movement on the court. McConnell summed up his chemistry with Redick by pointing to the veteran’s proven résumé.
“He’s a point guard’s dream when it comes to shooters,” McConnell said. “He’s the best I’ve ever played with and anytime you see him open you should get him the ball. It’s a pretty smart thing to do.”
When the Sixers found out they would be playing without Simmons for the first time this season, McConnell and Embiid talked about their 10-5 month of January last year. Embiid reminded him of how well they played together in the starting lineup, and more notably, how well the ball moved. It was a reminder of how well they could perform as starters again.
So while McConnell was looking for Redick and his teammates (he also found Embiid, Robert Covington, Amir Johnson, Jerryd Bayless and Dario Saric for assists), Embiid was trying to help him out, too.
Last season, McConnell fell one assist shy of a triple-double. So when Embiid saw he needed three boards to reach the mark, the big man tried to deliver an assist of his own.
“I told him to kind of every time there was nobody around me, and then I had a rebound," Embiid said in jest, "I told him to come get the rebound so he could get the triple-double. But he didn’t do it. I was so pissed at him.”
“Joel had told me [about the triple-double] when I got subbed out,” he said. “But he said he was going to tell the coaches to leave me in, and I begged him not to.”
The Sixers will reevaluate Simmons before determining his status for Monday against the Cavaliers. If he cannot play, the team can count on McConnell to deliver the same kind of grit and determination he displayed in this win.
"He plays with such tenacity and energy," Redick said. "We all just fed off that tonight."