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NBA Playoffs 2018: Sixers' T.J. McConnell, Robert Covington bonded through years of struggle
New Jersey Local | 2 months ago

PHILADELPHIA -- Around 2 p.m. on Monday, Robert Covington embraced T.J. McConnell, hugged him, gave him a message of encouragement and congratulated him for, well, stealing Covington's spot in the Sixers' starting lineup. It was genuine.

"Rob's one of the best dudes I've been around," McConnell said. "He went out of his way to come up to me (Monday) and said, 'you're starting. Go out there and make a difference.'"

Covington has struggled, shooting just 33 percent from the field during the playoffs. The Sixers -- down 3-0 in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics, on the verge of season-ending elimination -- needed a spark. Sixers coach Brett Brown turned to McConnell at the expense of Covington, who had started all 88 games he'd played this season. It worked -- the Sixers won 103-92 and will live to fight another day. McConnell will start again, too, for Wednesday night's Game 5 in Boston.

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That this moment -- Covington's loving embrace of McConnell on Monday afternoon -- went on without conflict speaks to the bond Covington and McConnell have formed Process Survivors.

Covington's congratulatory hug came through three seasons of struggle together -- there was a 10-win season and a 28-game losing streak -- to build up to this point. Together, Covington and McConnell were Andy Dufresne, and the last few years was the poo-infested sewage they had to fight through to get to this moment.

McConnell was often to compared to a 'paper boy' for his short stature when he prepped at Chartiers Valley High School in Pittsburgh. No major colleges cared to notice him out of high school, so he played locally at Duquesne before eventually catching on at University of Arizona. He went undrafted and was more of a punchline than an NBA player in the eyes of the general public. People didn't even believe he was an NBA player even after he was literally an NBA player.

"That's their opinion. People are going to say that throughout my entire career," McConnell said. "I just have to go out there and play my game, help our team win. I can't be worried about what other people are saying."

Covington had even less college interest coming out of Proviso West High School in Illinois and spent four years at Tennessee State. He too went undrafted, spent parts of one season with the Rockets before being released, drafted into the D-League and, finally, scooped up by the Sixers.

Over the next three seasons, he started 165 games. Last January, Sixers fans at Wells Fargo Center booed him relentlessly as a shooting slump -- he's had a few of those in his Sixers career -- extended through mid-season. Cheers returned by the fall, when Covington signed a massive extension and played the best basketball of his career at the start of the season.

The boo birds returned on Monday night after Covington finally entered the game (for McConnell) with 6:07 left in the first quarter. Over the next seven minutes, he committed three fouls, missed two shots and was booed off the court.

Fans have a love-hate relationship with Covington. He was given a $62 million contract in November, so fans expect a 62 million performance. Every night. From Covington's end, though, it's all love. He loves being a Sixer. He was on the bench supporting McConnell, and the rest of his teammates, for every minute he wasn't on the court.

Covington is "a great teammate," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "He's one of ours, has been one of ours for a very long time."

"A lot of people have come through this locker room over the years," Covington said after a win in the first round against the Heat. "Just to be still here and be a part of this team that has been so successful and now I'm adding to that success, that's a true statement to not giving up, not being comfortable. It's one of the things where you got to continue to work."

With 28.3 seconds left in the third quarter, Celtics guard Terry Rozier was at the free throw line as Sixers forward Robert Covington turned to the Wells Fargo Center crowd and raised his arms. It worked. The crowd stood up and screamed.

He did it again in the fourth quarter.

With 10:51 left in the game, Covington hit a three-pointer to put the Sixers up 82-66. The crowd was back on his side.

It never left McConnell's side. It never will. If the Sixers ever allow him to leave, the city might riot.

Chants of "TJ! TJ! TJ!" echoed through the arena on Monday night. McConnell's value to the Sixers comes in his ability to energize his teammates, get things going on defense, and run the offense as a secondary point guard option to Ben Simmons.

Monday, he played a career-high 39 minutes, and they were all productive. McConnell finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a plus/minus rating of plus-18, second-best in the game to Sixers' All-Star Joel Embiid.

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