T.J. McConnell’s Buzzer Beater Lifts Sixers over Knicks in Last Second Win

T.J. McConnell's last second shot gave the Sixers a 98-97 victory, propelling the Sixers to a 4-1 record in their last 5 games.

Sixers center Joel Embiid celebrates with T.J. McConnell after McConnell's game-winning shot gave the Sixers a 98-98 victory | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers center Joel Embiid celebrates with T.J. McConnell after McConnell’s game-winning shot gave the Sixers a 98-98 victory | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers continued their winning ways, defeating the New York Knicks 98-97 Wednesday night on a buzzer beater by T.J. McConnell.

The Sixers were in position to win the game after coming all the way back from a 10 point deficit with 2:29 remaining. The comeback was led by rookie center Joel Embiid, who scored 8 of his team-high 21 points in the final 2+ minutes of play, not to mention numerous defensive stops on the other end of the court fueled by Embiid’s commanding presence.

Still, after Gerald Hendreson (12 points, 5-10 shooting) made a pair of free throws with 27.8 seconds remaining, the Knicks had the ball with the chance to extend their 1-point lead, but second year Latvian phenom Kristaps Porzingis missed a wide open three-point shot in the corner.

That set up a frantic final 5.8 seconds of play, with Gerald Henderson grabbing a floor board, eventually leading to T.J. McConnell’s baseline jumper as time expired to win the game.

The comeback began with the Sixers franchise center, The Process, Joel Embiid, as he drove in on Knicks center Joakim Noah from the perimeter, casually pulling off a left-to-right crossover into a euro-step that reminded you how unique of an athlete he is, while drawing the and-1 to pull the Sixers to within 7.

Down on the other end of the court, small forward Robert Covington was fronting Carmelo Anthony in the post, trying to deny the entry pass to the Knicks’ leading scorer. Anthony quickly spun off of Covington and dove to the hoop, leading to a perfectly timed lob from point guard Derrick Rose that looked destined to push the Knicks lead back up to 9 and slow any momentum the Sixers were building.

Instead Embiid sniffed the play out, rotating off of Noah on the opposite end of the baseline to meet Anthony at the rim, deflecting the pass away and forcing yet another Knicks turnover. Forgetting for a moment the physical quickness required to cover that amount of ground in that short of a period of time, just the fact that Embiid was surveying the court and had the awareness to recognize the play and react in time belies how little experience — either in the NBA or just playing the game of basketball — Embiid has, and the series of events showed his immense two-way potential.

“You’re not going to see a finer play than Joel made at the end coming from a weakside to take away a lock and lob on Melo,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said about the play. “I think that there is a toughness in our group that I just am falling in love with.”

That steal created an open three-point attempt for Robert Covington, which he sank with 1:56 remaining to close the Knicks lead, which stood at 10 points just a little over 30 second earlier, down to 4. It capped off a strong fourth quarter for Covington, who finished with 13 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and a steal in the game, with 7 of his points, on 3-3 shooting, coming in the final frame.

That steal-to-transition-three also represents an aspect of the Sixers’ game that they’re slowly starting to find once again, as the Sixers have averaged 18.8 points per game off of turnovers during the last 5 games, which is the second most in the league over that span. The Sixers ranked just 17th in the league in points off turnovers prior to the last 5 games.

After an offensive rebound led to Derrick Rose hitting a contested pull-up jump shot, the Knicks seemed to have regained control, pushing their lead back out to 6 with 1:25 remaining, forcing Brown to call a timeout. Rose finished with 25 points on the night on 11-16 shooting from the field.

What play does Brown call after the timeout? Starting point guard T.J. McConnell cracks down from the perimeter to screen Joakim Noah, with Joel Embiid sprinting out to take a quick three-point shot from the top of the key. Bam. Down to a 3 point deficit with 1:21 remaining. Tight defense forced Carmelo Anthony into a three-point miss on the Knicks ensuing possession, which gave the Sixers the ball back down 3 with 1:02 remaining.

The Sixers, led by Robert Covington, held Carmelo Anthony scoreless in the final quarter of play. Anthony, who had just come off a dominating third quarter of play, finished the game with 28 points on 11-25 shooting from the field.

The Sixers responded with a 4-5 pick and roll, a play that they’re increasingly turning to late in games. While Ersan Ilyasova (16 points on 5-16 shooting, 4 rebounds, 5 assists) isn’t what you would typically consider to be a ballhandling power forward, he once again pulled the play off with ease, forcing the defense to respect his shooting enough to find Embiid rolling to the hoop.

The score made it a 1 point game with 51.8 seconds remaining, and also gave Embiid 21 points on the night. Embiid has now scored 20 or more points in 7 consecutive games, despite averaging just 27.4 minutes per game over that span.

Let’s walk back these series of events. Embiid created his own shot from the top of the key, executing a euro-step to cross Joakim Noah up and get the and-1. He followed that up with an incredible defensive rotation to meet Carmelo Anthony at the rim, saving the ball before it went out of bounds to get the Sixers out in transition. They ran a designed play to get Embiid an open top-of-the-key three, which he hit, then Embiid expertly boxed out stout offensive rebounder Joakim Noah, then the Sixers designed a play to hit a rolling Embiid at the rim.

All in the final moments of the game for a guy with 25 games of NBA experience who was playing on a sprained left ankle.

Rose would make yet another circus shot, this time spinning in a layup, using his body and the rim to shield Embiid from making the block. Rather than calling a timeout the Sixers elected to push the ball, leading to Henderson blowing by Rose to draw the foul, with Henderson calmly sinking both free throws to pull Brett Brown’s team back to within a point with 27.8 seconds remaining.

This is where the Sixers were the beneficiaries of some luck, luck which they seemingly never get late in these close games. The Knicks ran a pick and roll with Rose and Anthony, with Ilyasova, unsuccessfully, trying to jump out and trap Rose in the corner. Rose was able to find the baseline, drawing Embiid into the paint and away from Kristaps Porzingis (just 7 points on 3-10 shooting), who was stationed wide open in the far corner. The Knicks eventually found Porzingis, who airballed a three-point shot in the closing seconds of the game, a shot that seems to always find twine late in the game against these Sixers.

That all set up McConnell’s game winner. After Rose tipped the airball, Gerald Henderson found the floor board. Rather than use the timeout they had remaining Henderson instead chose to push the ball in transition, a decision head coach Brett Brown leaves up to his players.

“If you have something that you think is a clear path, take it,” Brown said about the decision not to use a timeout. “It’s a player’s read. If they feel like they have a clear path, they see daylight, they feel like the gym is an odd numbered gym, then we encourage them to take it and push the ball against a not-set defense.

“I think the chaos actually produced something probably more open (than a set play),” Brown finished.

It was the right decision, as the Sixers were able to advance the ball before the Knicks could get their defense set. Henderson found Ilyasova, who found McConnell on the baseline. With Carmelo Anthony defending, McConnell spun into a fadeaway 12 footer he got off with less than half of a second remaining. Bucket. Game.

That empowerment is something the players appreciate.

“The coaching staff trusted us. The plan was to grab the rebound and call a timeout or go if we didn’t want to,” Embiid said after the game. “For him (Brown) to let us play and let us grow and figure things out is great.”

For McConnell, it was the first time in his basketball career he hit a game winner, at any level of play.

“Ever. In all my years of basketball that was my first one,” McConnell said after the game. “If there was one in grade school I can’t remember, but I know there wasn’t one in high school, and not in college either.”

The Knicks came into the game struggling, losers of 8 of their last 9 games prior to Wednesday night’s contest with the Sixers. It doesn’t matter. For Brett Brown’s squad, being on the right end of a 15-4 run to end the game was a welcomed departure from the norm, giving them their 4th win in 5 games as they continue their quest for an identity.

Embiid’s career night on the glass
Despite scoring 8 points late in the 4th quarter to help fuel the Sixers’ run, Embiid struggled for much of the night, shooting just 4-17 from the field prior to that point. What Embiid did do was dominate the defensive glass against a tough offensive rebounding team.

Making a concerted effort to keep Joakim Noah from creating second chance opportunities for the Knicks, Embiid finished the game with 14 rebounds, 9 of which came on the defensive side of the ball. Those 14 were easily the most Embiid has grabbed in his young career, besting the 11 he hauled in against Memphis earlier in the season.

“I haven’t been rebounding the ball lately,” Embiid said after the game. “Tonight, one of my goals was to get to the glass. (Noah) was physical. I thought I did a good job on him, and we got the win. ”

The Knicks came into the game averaging 15.8 second chance points per game, the second best total in the league. They had just 11 such points against the Sixers, including just 7 when Embiid was in the game.

T.J. McConnell’s continued steady play
Outside of the game winning shot as time expired, the first of McConnell’s basketball career (at any level), the second year point guard out of Arizona continues to give the Sixers steady play at the point guard spot.

McConnell finished with 8 points (4-6 shooting), 7 assists, and 6 rebounds, with as many steals (2) as turnovers (2). During McConnell’s 6 games as a starter he’s averaging 9.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 9.2 assists per game, while limiting his turnovers to just 2.2 per contest. The Sixers are 5-1 in those games and have out outscored the opponent by 12 points while McConnell’s been on the court.

Quote(s) of the night
Reporter: “Do you get a sense that something is starting to come together here for you guys?”
Embiid: “Yeah, playoff time baby. ”

Embiid on being a leader:

“I want to be a leader, the team wants me to be a leader, so it just starts in practice,” Embiid said after the game. “I have to come in bringing energy even when you don’t feel like it. Gotta bring in energy, got to bring everybody together and make sure we have good practices, and obviously now it’s starting to (pay) off.”

T.J. McConnell on the final play:

“I thought we were going to throw it to Joel, so when the ball was coming at me I was like ‘oh my god’.”

Random stat(s):
First, the Knicks scored just 12 points in the paint in the 27 minutes Embiid was on the court, which comes out to 21.4 per 48 minutes played. The Knicks average almost double that, 40.4, points in the paint per game on the season.

Second, the Sixers have now won 4 of their last 5 games, the first time that’s been accomplished in the Brett Brown era. The last time the Sixers won 4 out of 5 was in late March / early April 2013, the last year of Doug Collins‘ tenure.

Picture of the game:

“(Embiid) was just as excited as I was. That’s what makes him such a great teammate and a great competitor,” McConnell said about the moment.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.