Ten steals, a triple-double, 19-point comeback win and a locker room celebration: Inside T.J. McConnell's unforgettable career game
Teammates dumped water on him afterward to celebrate his performance and the win.
T.J. McConnell wrapped up a rare on-court interview with the local TV broadcast and then headed back to the locker room. Inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, he turned left to enter and as he made his way in, teammates were waiting to dump water on his head in celebration of his monster night.
“It was not enjoyable, but it was enjoyable at the same time,” McConnell said afterward.
Inside the small and narrow visitors locker room, he then saw one of his teammates reach down towards foot bath, which is filled with ice and lots of water.
“I darted out of the locker room at that point,” he said with a big smile. “I’m not gonna let that type of stuff happen. I would’ve been way too cold. It just shows the type of guys we have here — to be happy for me for something like that and I just try to tell them it’s legitimately not possible without them.”
McConnell, a career reserve and a player the 76ers chose not to re-sign when his rookie contract was up in 2019, had the game of his career. He energized the defense, was central to their 19-point second-half comeback and most importantly, ended a four-game losing streak.
They won 114-111 in Cleveland and avoided going winless on this four-game road trip, too.
McConnell’s record-setting performance Wednesday night in Cleveland was in front of just 2,720 fans, officially. But thousands more watched back in Indiana, many staying with a game where the Pacers were outrebounded 26-6 in the first half and trailed by 19 in the third quarter because of the performance he had.
Talk about instant impact — McConnell had five steals in his first four minutes on the floor. The Cavaliers led the Pacers by 10 at halftime despite 18 turnovers, of which half were forced by McConnell. By then, he was on the verge of a triple-double with eight points, seven assists and a franchise-tying nine steals.
“In the first half I was just trying to do anything I can to will our team back into the game and getting in passing lanes and pressuring the ball,” he said, adding that a teammate made him aware of his nine steals at the break.
“I’m not going to try to mess with the game and feen for a steal,” he said of his mindset. “I really don’t like to do that stuff. I just wanted to play with our defensive principles and let the game come to me. I’m not gonna go out of my way to get a steal to get my 10th steal.”
His 10th steal, which secured a triple-double, came at a critical point with just 66 seconds left. They were up by two when he was able to reach in and deflect the pass away from Collin Sexton, which led to a transition layup by Malcolm Brogdon.
“If I can be completely honest with you, I don’t remember,” McConnell said of the play. “I think we were switching up defenses and just trying to get my hands in the right places and try to poke one free.”
His stat line was remarkable. It was McConnell’s second career triple-double and his first since 2018. He’s now one of eight players to record a triple-double that includes steals and the first to do so off the bench.
16 points on 8-for-8 shooting
The Pacers’ franchise steals record goes back more than 40 years, to 1980 when Dudley Bradley had nine. With 10, McConnell finished one shy of the NBA record owned by Kendall Gill (in 1999) and Larry Kenon (in 1976). Steals became an official stat for the 1973-74 season.
“T.J. was phenomenal tonight,” said Brogdon, who finished with a team-high 29 points. “That’s as good of a game you’re going to see from a player. He played at an extremely high level tonight and I think defensively was able to anchor us.”
McConnell averages 6.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game so any one of those double-digit numbers on their own is special, especially making all eight of his field goals. He was in a good flow and tried not to force anything, but instead let the game come to him.
He entered the game top five in the NBA in steals per game. By the end of the night, after 10 takeaways in one game, he’s now alone in first — and the only player averaging 2.0 steals per game. This feat is even more impressive because he plays off the bench, typically less than 25 minutes per game — seven fewer minutes per game.
Remember how his contract wasn’t fully guaranteed in the offseason? It was a no-brainer for the front office to keep him, only costing them $3.5 million this season. Former Pacers first-round pick TJ Leaf, who is now out of the league, earned more for this season ($4.5 million).
Now three months and 34 games into the season, Bjorkgren knows what he can expect from each of his players. With McConnell, the son of a coach, there’s never any doubt whether he will bring it. That’s how he’s lasted and contributed during his six seasons in the NBA.
“He’s got that look in his eye every night,” coach Nate Bjorkgren said. “He puts a lot on himself and he wants to do very well. Just his constant effort, the no quit. He wants to do everything he can for this team and the players really love playing with him.”
If only he was mic’d up for this one…
McConnell is one of the most likable players and has friends all over the league. One of the things I miss seeing is the number of players McConnell interacts with during pre-game warmups and after games. He plays hard, has a contagious sense of humor and is easy to root for.
“He’s the ultimate teammate — the way he treats his teammates, the way he encourages everybody on the floor,” Brogdon said. “So to see him have the game and the night he did is amazing. We’re all extremely happy for him.”
Former teammate Joel Embiid referred to him as “The GOAT” after McConnell recorded his first triple-double in 2018.
McConnell doesn’t need Embiid hyping him up anymore. Maurice Baker, a video coordinator and player development assistant now does that. Multiple times during timeouts and before McConnell checked back in, Baker got in his face.
“He continues to try to get me going, fire me up, get me more energy — and he does a great job with that,” said McConnell. “Everyone on this staff just does a great job of firing the guys up and giving us positive energy and we love them for it.”
Several teammates posted about McConnell’s performance postgame, including his current center Myles Turner.
In order to make the comeback, Bjorkgren tried multiple defenses and various lineups. The duo of McConnell and Edmond Sumner, both of whom push the pace and are lightning rods off the bench, had the most success.
Ultimately what worked was their box-and-1 defense. It allowed for them to be active and more disruptive, which helped prevent easy buckets and get out in transition.
They allowed 38 points in the paint in the first half and just 24 in the second. After the Cavaliers scored nine fast break points in the first half, the Pacers outscored them 6-0 over the final two quarters.
“Anytime you get a win like that — being down as much as we were and fighting back — you take advantage of that and for that to propel you into tomorrow’s game,” Bjorkgren said.
The Pacers are now 16-18 with one game left before All-Star break, against the Nuggets — one of the best teams in the league. They've won three straight (all on the road) and most recently pounded Milwaukee by 31 points.
“Dropping all four of them would have been terrible,” Brogdon admitted. “It would have been a terrible feeling, especially going home for our last game and playing a really good team going into All-Star break. It would have all been bad. So to get this last game against a good team that was actually rolling — that had won (four) games in a row — was a good feeling. And then to have one of your teammates have an amazing game, it definitely complemented the feeling.”
“I’m just glad we won. None of that stuff matters if we don’t win,” McConnell said of his own performance.
And when he finally got back to his locker and looked at his phone, his notifications were filled with messages. One stood out from his dad, Tim, whom he was named after (Timothy John) and coached him in high school. It was tough love back then.
“I saw his text that he’s very proud of me,” McConnell said. “I just want to tell him, if he ever sees this, that I wouldn’t be here without him. He’s the best and anytime I hear him say he’s proud of me because he was my coach and he’s a great coach, but he’s an ever better dad. It’s been incredible to have him be by my side through all this.”
T.J.’s a dad now too. Trace Benjamin — his first — is now eight weeks old. He’ll get to see him Thursday morning for the first time in a week and maybe one day they’ll watch highlights from this game together.
Perhaps that will happen when Trace asks his dad about the story behind a specific basketball because before the Pacers left the arena, Josh Conder, the equipment manager affectionately known as Country, took care of McConnell and retrieved the game ball.
At least until McConnell stole it from him.