Pacers’ T.J. McConnell has gone from nuisance to game-changer

Everybody from the Knicks to his own coach has called T.J. McConnell an annoyance.

But the Pacers’ guard has gone from annoying to game-changing.

He’ll try to change Tuesday’s Game 5 against the Knicks at the Garden, and give his team a chance to close out the Eastern Conference semis Friday at home.

Pacers guard T.J. McConnell (9) celebrates a made basket during Game 4 against the Knicks on May 12, 2024. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

McConnell bounced back from a rare subpar outing to have 15 points, 10 assists and two steals off the bench in Game 4, finishing a stellar +27 in the Pacers’ rout.

He brought energy from the first quarter, with a steal, an and-one and screaming “I’m back!”

“I don’t think I said that,” McConnell laughed afterward.

But he most certainly was back in Game 4, and the Pacers will need him back again to win Tuesday in the Garden.

“We’re walking into MSG. We know what kind of environment it’s going to be. They have a great fan base and obviously they play really well [at the Garden]. So we have to be prepared,” said McConnell.

T.J. McConnell hits a three-point shot against the Knicks on May 12, 2024. Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

“What we’re walking into at MSG is going to be a hellacious crowd that they play really well in front of them, because it’s a great fan base. So we have to really be ready and locked in.”

McConnell, one of the Pacers’ veteran leaders, ensured they were locked in Sunday.

He had 10 points, four assists and was a plus-20 by halftime to stake Indiana to a 28-point lead that swelled to 43 before the rout was over.

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“T.J., he’s one of our leaders,” said Myles Turner. “He’s really taken it upon himself to lead that second unit. And you’re right, he took full ownership for what happened last game. And it’s very rare that I think that that does happen. But I think he came out with a great spirit (Sunday) and really led those guys.”

What the Pacers would call spirit their opponents doubtless have less flattering words for.

McConnell is a professional irritant, picking up opponents 94 feet, pressing, and coming up with key 3s at the most pivotal times.

Josh Hart called McConnell an “annoying little s–-t.”

T.J. McConnell shoots over Miles McBride of the Knicks in Game 4 on May 12, 2024. AP

And even Rick Carlisle recalled coaching against McConnell when the guard was in Philadelphia and admitted “he was just an enormous annoyance.”

Now he’s the de facto leader of a second unit that more and more is getting to take advantage of the decimated Knicks bench.

McConnell’s energy could be even more glaring in Game 5 against a tired, threadbare unit.

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) drives up court against T.J. McConnell. AP

“Yeah, when [McConnell] comes in he brings the energy up, the pace, our pace goes even higher,” said Pascal Siakam. “I think our pace is pretty high … so that’s real important.

“He’s everywhere. And when he’s knocking down 3s, it’s crazy. He’s such a good guy and he plays the game the right way. So just having him and just knowing that when he comes in he’s going to give everything he has, and we need his pace and being disruptive the way he’s been.”

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