Despite series deficit, there's no quit in T.J. McConnell and the Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS — Neither of Boston’s All-Star wings, 6-foot-6 Jaylen Brown nor 6-foot-8 Jayston Tatum, could stop T.J. McConnell on Saturday night. The Pacers’ pesky reserve point guard dribbled along the baseline of Game 3’s second quarter against the Celtics, sneaking around Brown and then drawing Tatum, before faking the first-team All-NBA selection out of his shoes. McConnell buried that midrange jumper en route to an energizing 23 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists during Indiana’s 114-111 loss that gave Boston a commanding 3-0 series lead.

For the Pacers to stave off elimination Monday, and perhaps without injured All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana will continue relying on the nine-year veteran McConnell, an undrafted Arizona product who became something of a cult hero among the most loyal followers of Sam Hinkie’s Philadelphia process. It was those first four years with the Sixers that persuaded Indiana to award McConnell a two-year, $7 million deal in 2019 — and another four-year, $33 million deal after that. He has been a fixture of the Pacers ever since, both before and after Haliburton’s seismic arrival, and seems so ingrained within Indiana’s fabric McConnell doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MAY 25: T.J. McConnell #9 of the Indiana Pacers celebrates a three point basket against the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on May 25, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
T.J. McConnell is focused on helping the Pacers extend their series with the Celtics. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

“We feel like he’s the head of the snake,” Celtics guard Jrue Holiday said.

“He’s one of the heartbeats of that team,” Boston head coach Joe Mazzulla said. “He just makes winning plays. He’s really good at the end of quarters, which is a way that teams can keep momentum, start momentum, chip away at momentum.”

McConnell may be the craftiest in the league at slithering down the baseline like he did when he found Andrew Nembhard for the Pacers’ first 3-pointer of the game late in the second quarter. At just 6-foot-1, that area of the floor can prove treacherous, a trap waiting to be set among the NBA’s giants. Steve Nash, even at his own smaller stature, was always able to probe opponents while operating along that tightrope, and McConnell has an uncanny ability to mimic the Hall of Fame point guard in that domain.

“We speak the same language in talking about trying to manipulate the defense and trying to take up real estate, so to speak,” Nash once told Yahoo Sports about McConnell, “distorting and putting pressure on the defense and keeping your dribble alive.”

Nash played college ball with Pacers assistant Lloyd Pierce, who was on Brett Brown’s staff in Philadelphia before Pierce took the Hawks’ head-coaching job. Through that connection and an assist from another Sixers staffer, Chris Babcock, McConnell once worked with Nash during an offseason training session in Los Angeles, and one of the game’s greatest saw a worthy descendent of the baseline attack many coaches have now labeled the “Nash dribble.”

“What [McConnell’s] saying is, ‘Sometimes I can out-finesse you, out-think you, sometimes I don’t need to challenge you with my athleticism because I may not win that battle,’” Nash said. “‘But I can keep my dribble alive and put pressure on the defense because they’re chasing and trying to recover. As my guy’s trying to get back to me, someone might take me until he can get back, and that’s a difficult part of the court to do that in.’”

It’s not just his dribble. Once McConnell picks up the rock in the paint, he keeps his pivot foot alive as if his own life depends on it. He can twist and flick an incredible array of mid-range, falling jumpers that have almost become eradicated by today’s modern offenses.

“T.J. McConnell is such a good player,” Celtics center Al Hoford said.

“He’s been a load for us,” Holiday said. “With our scouting and all that, we focus on T.J. a lot.”

McConnell’s wonky mechanics aren’t the most effective from the outside, but he delivered his only triple Saturday with just over three minutes remaining in the game on a kick-out from Andrew Nembhard. McConnell squared, fired and connected in the right corner before clapping his left fist into his right bicep, pushing the three fingers of his right hand up like a celebratory level and yelling, “Boom!” to the first few rows of Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

“Our crowd, I can’t speak for everyone, you feel invincible sometimes playing in front of them,” McConnell said Saturday.

He might be the easiest player for a home team to cheer. McConnell is first to the floor and maximizes every minute he sees. During his rookie training camp in Philadelphia, McConnell would regularly pull teammates aside, including Nik Stauskas and Richaun Holmes, and ask if he was kidding himself trying to even make an NBA team. “He’s always gonna keep fighting like it’s Day 1,” Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said. “That’s what makes him special.”

After another defeat in which Indiana held a late fourth-quarter advantage, McConnell said there’s no quit coming from his side. “Obviously this one stings, but there’s no guy in this locker room that’s packed it in.”

He has one year remaining beyond this season on his current deal, an attractive salary as league executives view McConnell as one of the best reserves in the league. His value contract, in addition to his endless battery, most notably drew trade inquiries from the Phoenix Suns throughout this past season, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

And still, when asked postgame whether McConnell thought he’s long since proven he belongs, that he’s far from that undrafted underdog merely invited to Philly’s training camp, McConnell still demurred.

“I don’t know. Maybe just the energy that I bring on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you know if I’m playing like I don’t have anything to prove, I think it would be time for me to retire.”