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T.J. McConnell's grind to Sixers' starting guard makes him 'Symbolic Sixer'

T.J. McConnell's grind to Sixers' starting guard makes him 'Symbolic Sixer'

After weeks of silliness on the part of the local pro basketball franchise -- the ham-handed handling of injuries, the peddling of key players for pennies on the dollar, etc. -- we seem to have come full circle.

We seem to be left with T.J. McConnell, Symbolic Sixer.

He represented optimism -- remember those two game-winning jumpers? -- when the team was showing a pulse in January.

But now he represents a team trying to hang on to … something. Respectability? Dignity? Hope?

Who better to do so? This is a guy who was one of four healthy point guards the Sixers took to training camp in 2015 after he went undrafted out of Arizona.

He’s the only one left.

And this is a guy who appeared to be the third man on the totem pole as this season dawned, behind Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez.

He’s been the starter since Dec. 30.

"He doesn’t go away," coach Brett Brown said before Saturday’s 136-106 loss to Detroit. "He just doesn’t go away."

Even so, Brown reiterated his plan to open next season with Ben Simmons at the point. But, you know, see above.

"He’s a survivor," said T.J.’s dad, Tim (listen to Zoo's Views podcast for Marc Zumoff's one-on-one interview with McConnell).

The elder McConnell -- he’s Timothy John Sr., his son Timothy John Jr. -- just finished up his 24th season as the coach at Chartiers Valley High School in Western Pennsylvania, having once had T.J. on his roster. Now Tim watches every Sixers game, whether live (he hopes to attend 15 this season, in either Philadelphia or Cleveland) or on TV.

He sees in his son what everyone else sees -- a guy who has grown into the job.

"A guy," Tim said, "that feels like he belongs."

CSN Philly studio analyst Jim Lynam, the former Sixers coach, remembers the point-guard free-for-all in the ‘15 camp, one that included not only McConnell but Isaiah Canaan, Scottie Wilbekin and Pierre Jackson. (Two other points, Tony Wroten and Kendall Marshall, were out with knee injuries. They’re gone, too.)

At that point, Lynam said, McConnell didn’t display the same attributes he does now -- the ability to invade the lane and create, the willingness to defend 94 feet, the leadership, the certitude.

His development in all those areas has led Lynam to reach a greater truth.

"Given what’s happened over these past several seasons," he said, "I think the Philly Sixer fan identifies with this guy. He, in a way, epitomizes the climb that this team has been on."

The fans are not the only ones who can identify with him. Take Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who like McConnell played at Arizona. A second-round pick in 1988, Kerr played 15 NBA seasons and won five championship rings, three with Michael Jordan’s Bulls and two with the Tim Duncan’s Spurs.

Different player than McConnell -- Kerr was a lights-out shooter, not a pure point -- but same mentality.

"I always identify with the guys who kind of have to scrap and claw and maybe weren’t drafted or weren’t first-round picks," he said before the Warriors beat the Sixers last Monday. "I always kind of root for those guys, quietly."

And take Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who broke into the NBA with the Lynam-coached Sixers in 1988 as an undrafted free agent. In all, he manned the point for six teams over 10 seasons.

"He’s much, much better," Brooks said, comparing McConnell to himself before a recent game. "He makes game-winners; I never did."

Then again, Brooks deadpanned, "(Charles) Barkley never passed, so I could not."

And take one other point guard: Ish Smith, reacquired by the Sixers midway through last season when the coaching staff came to the realization that the rookie could not "walk down a game," as Brown likes to say.

"He’s taken the biggest step from his first year to his second year," said Smith, now with Detroit. "I’m proud of him." 

Smith knows McConnell well. They share a personal trainer and worked out together in the weeks and months leading up to the younger man’s rookie year. Smith also knows something about persistence; the Pistons are his 10th team in seven NBA seasons.

"Anything in life and the game, it’s just all about opportunities," Smith said, "and he was given a great opportunity. And he’s taken it and run with it."

Bayless was supposed to be the Sixers’ point guard this season, but that never materialized because of a wrist injury. Rodriguez started the first two months of the year, then rolled an ankle and never regained the job.

And about that walking-down-the-game thing: McConnell’s buzzer-beating jumpers, his first on any level of play, came against the Knicks on Jan. 11 and then vs. Magic on Feb. 9. He was playing so well -- as was the team, which went 10-3 in one stretch -- that there were reports that the Cleveland Cavaliers, in search of a backup point, wanted to trade for him. And that the Sixers turned them down.

Mull that a moment: The defending champs -- i.e., LeBron -- wanted him.

"I didn’t really pay attention to it," McConnell said before a game in early February, "because I knew if it happened, it’s going to happen. And if it didn’t, I’m not worried about it. I’m more focused on trying to get our team a win, and just playing here."

That very night the Sixers were leading Miami by five in the final half-minute. McConnell was streaking up the left side of the floor, just over midcourt, when he spotted Nerlens Noel -- perhaps you remember him -- flying toward the rim. McConnell’s alley-oop was true, Noel dunked and the Sixers won.

It seemed another sign of growth, of a play McConnell not only wouldn’t have made last year but one he wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to make since he wouldn’t have been on the court at that stage of the game. Not after Smith arrived. And McConnell didn’t disagree.

"If I saw it last year, who knows if I would have thrown it?" he said. "I’m just a little bit more experienced this year."

Lynam, who in addition to everything else is an old Saint Joseph’s point guard, understands as well as anyone.

"When these young guys, almost without exception, come in, you have to feel your way a little bit," he said. "Maybe you want to feel that (confidence) at the beginning, but guess what, until they do it, there’s a seed of doubt. That’s just human nature."

The doubts are gone. These days, with so many players of consequence injured or discarded, McConnell is introduced last at home games, an honor usually reserved for the biggest star.

Maybe, just maybe, the fans see something more when they see the Symbolic Sixer.

Maybe they see hope, persistence. Maybe they see possibilities, if only you continue to seek them out.

Best of NBA: Spurs overcome 23-point deficit to beat Thunder

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Best of NBA: Spurs overcome 23-point deficit to beat Thunder

SAN ANTONIO -- LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a 23-point deficit to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 104-101 on Friday night.

Danny Green added 17 points, and Pau Gasol had 14 points to help San Antonio end Oklahoma City's three-game winning streak.

Aldridge put back of Green's missed 3-pointer gave the Spurs a 102-99 lead with 24.2 seconds remaining.

The Thunder missed two 3-pointers on the ensuing possession, but Carmelo Anthony tracked down a second offensive rebound and made a 25-footer with his foot on the 3-point line to cut the lead to 102-101.

Gasol made two free throws, and Russell Westbrook stumbled to the court and threw up an airball on a 3-point attempt.

Anthony had 20 points to lead the Thunder. Westbrook was held to 15 points after scoring 10 in the opening period. He was 5 for 22 from the field (see full recap).

LeBron scores 39 as Cavs rally past Clippers in OT
CLEVELAND -- LeBron James scored 39 points, Kevin Love added 25 and the Cleveland Cavaliers won their fourth straight, 118-113 in overtime on Friday night over the skidding Los Angeles Clippers, who dropped their seventh in a row.

Love drained a pair of 3-pointers in OT, when the Cavs outscored the Clippers 13-8. Dwyane Wade added 23 points and 11 rebounds for Cleveland.

The Cavs' win wasn't eye-pleasing, but it was another step in the right direction for the Eastern Conference champions, who went 3-1 on a just-completed road trip.

The Clippers are headed the other way. Los Angeles has lost nine of 10 since a 4-0 start.

Blake Griffin scored 23 and DeAndre Jordan had 20 points and 22 rebounds for Los Angeles, which didn't give up the lead until the first minute of overtime. The Clippers had chances to put the Cavs away in regulation, but they didn't execute down the stretch and then had defensive breakdowns in overtime (see full recap).

Bulls overcome Walker’s 47 points to snap skid
CHICAGO -- Justin Holiday had 27 points and the Chicago Bulls beat the skidding Charlotte Hornets 123-120 on Friday night, overcoming a 47-point outburst by Kemba Walker to snap their five-game losing streak.

Walker finished five points shy of his career high but missed a driving layup with Charlotte trailing by one in the closing seconds.

Lauri Markkanen then hit two free throws to make it 123-120 with 2.6 seconds left, securing the Bulls' third win in 13 games this season. Charlotte has dropped six straight.

Last in the NBA in scoring and field goal percentage, Chicago shot 52 percent and hit 17 of 34 3-pointers.

Holiday and Denzel Valentine, who had 18 points, each sank four from long range. Kris Dunn scored 22, Markkanen added 16 and the Bulls came out on top after a tense finish.

Charlotte's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist rebounded a missed shot by Chicago's Robin Lopez with about 10 seconds left. After a timeout, a driving Walker was bothered by a rotating Markkanen as Walker tried to put the Hornets ahead (see full recap).

Sixers swingman Justin Anderson out with shin splints

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Sixers swingman Justin Anderson out with shin splints

The Sixers’ line to the doctor’s office is getting longer by the day.

The team announced on Friday that Justin Anderson is out with shin splints in his left leg. He will be reevaluated in approximately three weeks.

Anderson joins guards Markelle Fultz (shoulder), Jerryd Bayless (wrist) and Nik Stauskas (ankle) on the injury report.

In 10 games this season, Anderson has averaged 5.0 points (37.5 percent shooting from the field, 34.6 percent shooting from three-point range) and 2.7 rebounds in 12.6 minutes per game.

With Anderson on the shelf, expect Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to see an uptick in minutes. The French swingman has averaged 16.0 minutes a night so far this season with 6.8 points (38.4 percent from the field, 35.6 percent from three-point range) and 1.2 rebounds.

While there’s never a good time for ailments, the rash of injuries to the Sixers’ perimeter players couldn’t have come at a worse time. The team faces the best backcourt in the NBA again in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson when it opens a six-game homestand against the champion Golden State Warriors on Saturday (7:30 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia).