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T.J. McConnell proves he belongs in NBA, as Sixers lose to Bulls

The point guard had eight assists in a loss to the Bulls. He is wrapping up a successful season

76ers point guard T.J. McConnell stayed around after the shootaround Thursday morning to get in some extra shots in preparation for that night's 102-90 loss to the Chicago Bulls at the Wells Fargo Center.

McConnell stopped momentarily to poke fun at a reporter while dribbling the ball in the perimeter.

"What's up, scrub?" the second-year point guard said. "Come on out here and try to stop me."

After his fun-loving exchange, he made a series of jumpers. Then he directed his teasing to teammate Dario Saric, who walked past the court.

McConnell's demeanor is the sign of someone who has come a long way from a guy who didn't even have a locker during the 2015-16 preseason. His comfort level is also obvious. So is his grit.

The 25-year-old twisted his left ankle with 2 minutes, 45 seconds left in the third quarter. He had to be helped off the court and into the locker room. X-rays were negative and McConnell returned to play with 7:18 left.

He scored a reverse layup 33 seconds later. McConnell finished the game with nine points, eight assists, six rebounds, and three steals in 33 minutes, 16 seconds.

"I caught the ball," said McConnell, describing the cause of his injury. "I didn't see Jimmy Butler behind me and I planted wrong. I just felt pain, and I dropped to the ground."

He will receive treatment Friday.

"I'll be all right," said McConnell, whose squad lost its fifth straight.

This one dropped the Sixers (28-51) into a tie with the Orlando Magic for the fourth-worst record with three games remaining.

But the undrafted player out of Arizona has proven he belongs in the NBA. He's also shown that the Sixers can depend on him to close out games.

"I think last year as the backup, I wasn't able to do that," McConnell said. "Ish [Smith] was our closer and deservedly so."

Smith, however, signed a free-agent deal with the Detroit Pistons in the offseason. The Sixers looked for Ben Simmons, the top pick in the draft, and free-agent signees Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez to assume the ballhandling roles.

But McConnell eventually emerged as the primary ball handler after season-ending injuries to Simmons (foot) and Bayless (wrist). He moved into the starting lineup Dec. 30. At first, the thought was that McConnell would be nothing more than a fill-in until Rodriguez returned after three games with a sprained left ankle. However, it turned out to be for the rest of the season.

McConnell's biggest growth has been in his confidence.

"It's his ability to not just feel like 'I'm so lucky to be in the NBA,' " said Sixers coach Brett Brown. He added that McConnell can believe that "I belong. I want to grab this opportunity and be the legitimate point guard."

McConnell's highlights include a buzzer-beating game-winner against the New York Knicks (Jan. 11) and a go-ahead basket and game-clinching steal in the closing seconds against the Magic (Feb. 9).

"I think I've done a pretty good job this year" of closing out games, said McConnell, who averages 6.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 1.6 steals.

He intends to improve his shooting over the summer. McConnell is shooting 20.4 percent on three-pointers. The Pittsburgh native will go home to Western Pennsylvania for three weeks at the conclusion of the season. Then he'll spend the offseason in this area to work out at the team's practice facility in Camden.

"But I [also] have to get my handle better," he said. "I have to get stronger, add finishes to my game, but mostly [it's] shooting for me."

McConnell will take a short break to marry his high school sweetheart, Valerie Guiliani, on Sept. 9 in Pittsburgh.

He'll have a different role with the Sixers shortly after he returns from his wedding. McConnell could drop back to being the third-string point guard. Simmons and Bayless will be back. The team also could draft or acquire a point guard in free agency.

"Look, I'm not here to make coaches' or players' or front offices' life more difficult," McConnell said. "I'm here to do what they want me to do.

"They want me to be third string, I'm not going accept it. I'm going to work hard to try to be first and second string. But I'm not going to moan and complain about it. I'm going to work hard like I did this year . . . and push guys to the limit."

Nikola Mirotic paced the Bulls (39-40) with a game-high 22 points. Butler had a triple-double with 19 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot led the Sixers with 18 points. Richaun Holmes had his fourth double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.