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On T.J. McConnell, the nuances of play-calling, and petty pageantry

Behold, the future of trash “talk”

Golden State Warriors v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

T.J. McConnell is no stranger to pageantry. When he got crumpled while attempting to box-out Giannis Antetokounmpo for a rebound last season, he looked up from the ground and winked at the camera like a scripted heel. Four weeks ago, he stared in amazement at his left hand, as though it was made of magic, after evading Bol Bol’s infinite reach with a floater that very nearly had to leave the earth’s atmosphere in order to find nylon on return descent. And, in many cases, he’ll strut around, urging the fans to make noise, anytime he manages to swipe an inbound pass — as has become his signature play.

Put simply, he doesn’t just let his game do the talking, he also has no qualms with doing the talking for his game (oftentimes, with tongue firmly in cheek), whether with grand, crowd-pleasing gestures or petty, inconspicuous gesturing. During Wednesday night’s win over the Golden State Warriors, he fell into the latter category, punctuating a steal with a punch-line so subtle, yet spicy, as to require some background information to fully land.

Here’s what happened. With 9:19 to play and the Pacers leading by eight, Steve Kerr called the following play from the sidelines.

Granted, trying to read lips is always tricky, but based on what happens next, it’s reasonable to think that “Winter Away” might be what was shouted out onto the court. If so, “Winter” would likely be in reference to Tex Winter, who is known for being an architect of the triangle offense and worked as an assistant coach for Phil Jackson both with the Chicago Bulls, when Kerr was a player, as well as for the Los Angeles Lakers. As such, it seems telling that the play begins with an entry to Draymond Green as the trigger in the high post, with any number of reads then occurring in reaction to the defense.

Meanwhile, “Away” is oftentimes what a stagger (consecutive pindown screens) for the player in the far corner is called or can mean a one-person “away” screen. Turns out, in conjunction with the high post action for Draymond, the Warriors were also setting up to screen “away” for Jordan Poole.

Of course, Golden State’s offense is generally characterized more by making the best decision from the options available than by pre-determined decisions and actions, so the artisan quality can be difficult to predict. After all, earlier in the game, they set up in much the same manner, only with Kevon Looney screening away for Stephen Curry as the would-be first screener in a stagger for Poole, who ended up responding to the botched coverage on the part of Andrew Nembhard and Buddy Hield by scurrying to the rim.

Watch other games though, and they might run a modified version of this against zone, with Poole making a 45-cut to the opposite corner and slipping behind an exit screen.

Or, maybe, the first screener cuts through, and he flies off the second screen for three.

Again, it all depends on the defense, which is where McConnell (figuratively and literally) inserts himself into the conversation. In all likelihood, he heard the play-call because he is anticipating the away screen by positioning his body between Poole and the pindown to induce a back-cut.

In the reverse, this occurs fairly often against the Pacers. Just listen to what went down versus the Orlando Magic when Rick Carlisle yelled “wide” repeatedly as the call for a flat away screen. In rapid succession, Jamahl Mosley can audibly be heard saying “top” as the directive to top-lock Buddy Hield, which then triggers the rejection into “stack” as a counter, with Hield flipping around as the back-screener.

In fact, this happens enough that, at times, it almost seems as though Carlisle is barking out “wide” just to sell the defense on making the adjustment.

Point being, there are layers to this. Anyway, back to McConnell, who is top-locking Poole and snaps his head to anticipate the backdoor pass, forcing a turnover.

After a flurry of action results in points for the Pacers at the other end of the floor, pushing the lead back up to double figures, look at Kerr’s reaction.

And, really, who can blame him? For the game, the Warriors committed 23 turnovers, which was their second-highest tally of the season, and this possession went sideways after Steph Curry, who led all scorers with 38 points, left the game due to injury. Times were tough, and about to get more challenging, given that Green got ejected a few minutes later.

Then, in putting an exclamation point on the play he had just made, McConnell looked in the direction of the bench and did this.

For those keeping track, that’s the same hand signal that Kerr used — just repurposed in the form of a sarcastic taunt. It’s a deep cut, even if not all that cutting. Overall, he may not be egging on the crowd with showmanship, but he’s making sure his opponent knows they have egg on their face. And now, thanks to quite possibly the nerdiest form of trash “talk” imaginable, the rest of us know, too. All of which is to say that, if there must be pettiness, may it always be as nuanced as “calling” the play-calling out by name — amirite?