As a visual learner, I live off of what my eyes have seen and interpreted which is why I love the NBA so much. The aesthetics of the game, the art, the jazz element of the 5-on-5 matchups creating new and wonderful highlights every game. Even if the same plays are run and strategy employed the end results take many forms.
So when considering the best moment of the week for the Pacers, one highlight immediately surfaced when I closed my eyes and considered the task. While the team hopping a plane out of Milwaukee was a close second, it had to be a key play from the Memphis game which brought up T.J. McConnell doing what T.J. McConnell does best.
The Pacers always get a boost of energy with McConnell enters the game off the bench. For a guy who struggles to shoot it, in a make or miss league, McConnell’s ability to impact the game is remarkable.
Among the many ways McConnell makes his presence felt is with his signature steals of opponent inbound passes after a Paces bucket. It is something that has to be bolded, highlighted and vociferously emphasized on every opponent scouting report prior to playing the Pacers.
But every game, there he is, lurking behind a bigger body, reading the inbound passer jsut going through the motions, then - BOOM -McConnell darts to the ball and starts circling around with the dribble after the steal. When it leads to a quick bucket, momentum is all on the Pacers side.
In the Paces win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday, McConnell took the big-time play to another level. It started by McConnell taking an outlet pass from Myles Turner, pushing the pace up the left side of the court before finding Justin Holiday beating the defense down the court on the right side for a layup. McConnell kept drifting to the right side of the court after dishing to JHoliday and when a Grizzlies’ player casually inbounded the ball with a loose bounce pass, McConnell swiped it before the passer or player he was passing to realized it.
But this time, McConnell quickly probed the baseline and saw Myles Turner sprinting the floor (after having initially set the play in motion with a rebound and outlet at the other end of the floor). With the Grizz D in chaos, Turner parted the lane, took a pass from McConnell and flushed it home.
The Pacers extended their lead to 14 late in the first quarter and forced a timeout by Memphis. Enjoy the visuals.
It seems laughable to consider the conversations we were having prior to the season about whether or not the Pacers should try to keep McConnell in the mix for his modest salary. The thought was, younger players should get the minutes off the bench which fails to give McConnell credit the way he can impact winning. You can get stuck on his three-point stroke (or something like that) and figure, the team is shooting more threes so he will not fit. During preseason play, it also looked like McConnell would have trouble finding his way under new coach Nate Bjorkgren.
But T.J. McConnell knows how to impact a game in his own way better than anyone and one of the ways he does it is with relentless defensive pressure that has him constantly hunting plays. McConnell is among the top ten (8th on Feb. 5) leaders in steals in the NBA.
Did you get that? Among all players in the NBA, McConnell is 8th in steals, yet he plays less than 22 minutes per game. The remaining players on that top ten list all average in excess of 30 minutes per game, most 32-34 minutes. Also, according to NBA stats, among the steals leaders, McConnell ranks second in Steals percentage (STL%) at 41.3 behind just Jimmy Butler at a ridiculous 47.4, albeit in just nine games played this season.
In Zach Lowe’s latest column for ESPN.com, he highlights the theft-ability of McConnell utilizing Per 36 numbers which has the Pacers’ guard in rarified air with Philly’s Matisse Thybulle who all Pacers fans are aware of after his fourth quarter at the Fieldhouse last Sunday that included four steals.
McConnell is averaging 2.9 steals per 36 minutes, again second only to Thybulle. Only 24 players have snatched three steals per 36 minutes over 42 combined individual seasons, per Basketball-Reference. (Alvin Robertson had the most such seasons, with five. Buckner had three, so you understand his glee at McConnell’s thievery.) Only two have pulled it since the end of the 1990s — Tony Allen and Metta World Peace, once each.
McConnell is more than the cliched coach’s son who compensates for middling athleticism with unrelenting hustle, though he is also that. He’s an elite midrange shooter, dishing 10.3 dimes per 36 minutes. The Pacers, thinned by injury, boast a fatter scoring margin with McConnell on the floor; his selflessness and pace galvanize them the second he enters.
Lowe highlights another sequence in the fourth quarter against Memphis when McConnell disrupted the Grizzlies on another inbounds pass steal that was certainly a will killer considering the Pacers were up by 22 points at the time.
Nate Bjorkgren introduced himself to Pacers fans saying he wanted his team to be disruptive defensively and make their opponents uncomfortable. No player personifies that goal better than T.J. McConnell which in turn gives us special highlight moments to enjoy long after the game is over.
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