Sixers extend series by knocking off Celtics

‘Trust the Process’ has been living up to its name.

Heating up: T.J. McConnell sparked the Sixers’ victory over Boston on Monday. AL THOMPSON / FOR THE TIMES

By Al Thompson

The 76ers motto, Trust the Process, was put to its biggest challenge this week, and so far, so good.

Sixers head coach Brett Brown used a strategy Monday night that you might see only in movie about a high school basketball team.

The 76ers were down 0–3 in their Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics and facing elimination.

Like in the movies, the coach turned to the little guy at the end of the bench to save the day.

And that’s exactly what happened when Brown called on third-year guard T.J. McConnell to start in place of struggling starter Robert Covington.

The Sixers defeated the Celtics, 103–92 extending the series to Wednesday night in Boston (8 p.m., TNT). Boston leads the series, 3–1.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound McConnell was outstanding, scoring a career-high 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting in 39 minutes. He added seven rebounds, including two off the offensive glass, and five assists.

The former University of Arizona standout said he learned he was starting when he arrived at the arena mid-afternoon.

“We were going into walkthrough at the arena, it was around 2 o’clock, and I walk out onto the floor and our assistant coach, Lloyd Pierce, actually notified me first,” McConnell said. “I just switched my mindset around to knowing I’ll probably be playing a little bit more minutes and just have to be ready.”

McConnell used his speed and defensive instincts to pester Boston’s ball handlers all night, often with a full-court press.

His coach said it was the right move to make, especially with their collective backs against the wall.

“The obvious is the obvious,” Brown said. “It’s the way he plays, it’s an injection of energy that you immediately know you’re going to get with him.”

His teammates and opponents offered their thoughts on McConnell’s play.

“He had a great effort offensively and defensively,” said forward/center Ersan Ilyasova, who scored six points in 17 minutes. “He brings a lot. He comes from the bench and scores 19 (points). It was huge for us, especially with him, especially on the defensive end. Nobody can get an easy score on him, he is full of energy.”

Boston head coach Brad Stevens said he was impressed with the backup-turned-starter.

“He was great,” Stevens said. “He was a tough guy. He’s a heck of a basketball player, and obviously, we didn’t do a great job of defending him, and his impact was tremendous.”

Ben Simmons, who scored 19 points, pulled down 13 rebounds and had five assists, was asked how McConnell is able to pick up everyone on the team and play with so much energy.

“It is just something not everybody has,” Simmons said. “That fire within. He’s not the biggest or most athletic guy, but he has an energy that he brings every night and is a huge part of this team. Tonight was a night where he really stepped up. He gave us the energy that everyone else was able to feed off of.”

Joel Embiid, who scored 15 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, probably paid McConnell his highest compliment, simply saying he’s a pro, and that’s what he is supposed to do.

“He just did his job,” Embiid said. “Like Ben said, not everybody has it. He played what, 39 minutes tonight? He didn’t take any plays off, he was pressing full-court the whole time, doing his job, running the offense, getting guys involved, making shots, layups and just doing his job.”

Rookie Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 20 points, four rebounds and four assists. Al Horford played nearly 35 minutes but took just six shots, making four for 10 points. He pulled down 10 rebounds and blocked three shots. He said the Celtics never recovered from the Sixers’ 10–0 run in the third quarter.

“I just felt like they were really fighting, they were very resilient,” Horford said. “Teams are going to make runs they made, we just didn’t match it. We couldn’t match it, and they created that separation, and it was tough after that.”

The Sixers did a lot of things well during their first three games against Boston, but they had not been able to transfer those positives into victories until Monday night.

There is a big difference between believing you can accomplish something and knowing you can do it.

Will that help the 76ers Wednesday night knowing they can beat Boston in a playoff game?

“It does help a lot,” Ilyasova said. “Obviously, in order to beat those guys, we don’t know, we have to play smart, offensively and defensively. I think we did a good job to not let them make three-point shots, and we closed out the game the proper way. Whatever it takes, whatever it takes to win Game 5, we need to do. It’s going to be tough.”

It’s probably good the key players on the Sixers roster are so young. They don’t know what they are up against trying to be the first NBA team to rally from an 0–3 deficit to win a series.

The Celtics did their homework on how to defend the Sixers’ three-point offense, and so far it’s been effective.

Boston’s perimeter defenders have been able to jam shooters Marco Belinelli, J.J. Reddick, Dario Saric, Covington and Ilyasova, cutting off their screens and forcing bad shots.

In game three, the 76ers were 9-of-30 from beyond the arc. Covington missed all five of his three-point attempts.

The Sixers didn’t shoot well in Game 4, either, hitting just 7-of-26 from beyond the three-point line.

But Saric was able to muscle his way for a game-high 25 points, and the 76ers hit the boards well again, pulling down 53 rebounds as a team compared to 43 by the Celtics. Their 16 offensive rebounds created extra shots that the home team took advantage of.

McConnell’s aggressiveness helped the Sixers come up with six steals.

“We ended up with 15 turnovers, the offensive rebounds were enormous for them,” Stevens said. “The extra possessions, neither team shot it great, but they were really good tonight and hats off to their team, hats off to Brett (Brown) and his staff, they were terrific.”

Game 5? Game 6? Game 7? Simmons said his team is hungry to make history.

“I’m not ready to go home and start my vacation, definitely not,” Simmons said. “I texted Jo before the game and we spoke about it. We want to be here. The time is now. It’s going to take a lot. But that’s just the way our mindset is. We know we’re the leaders of this team.” ••

Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii