The Indiana Pacers have eagerly disrupted the 2024 NBA Playoffs, taking advantage of an injury-plagued Eastern Conference and overcoming their youth and rabid opposing crowds. Though, as has been the case many times in postseason history, order is on the verge of being restored.

A supremely-talented and skilled Boston Celtics team is not sympathetic to this feel-good story. And with star guard Tyrese Haliburton being dealt a devastating injury blow, a must-win Game 3 in Gainbridge Fieldhouse is looking like it could be an unofficial coronation for the Celtics in their pursuit of the conference crown.

If the Pacers are going to remain undefeated at home and claw their way back in this series like they did against the New York Knicks, this group will need to have determination to spare. Fortunately, head coach Rick Carlisle happens to have one of the league's most reliable high motors at his disposal.

An Indiana victory is difficult to picture unless TJ McConnell embodies the qualities that cause teammates to adore him and opponents to become exasperated with him. He has not stolen any headlines in the first two contests versus Boston, but the veteran guard was instrumental in finishing off the Bucks and Knicks during this playoff run.

The circumstances may be equally critical on Saturday night, so fans are hoping McConnell can light a spark under Indiana in Game 3. After all, it is the 32-year-old's own eternal fire that helped him survive his undrafted beginnings and become a linchpin for the Pacers.

TJ McConnell is never comfortable with his position in the NBA

Indiana Pacers guard T.J. McConnell (9) battles New York Knicks guard Miles McBride (2) and guard Donte DiVincenzo (0) for the ball during the first half during game five of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s going to sound silly, but I have a chip on my shoulder where I don’t belong.” McConnell told Katie Heindl of SB Nation. “I use what got me to the NBA…that’s the thing I never lost. And I will never lose. And if I do, I think it’s time for me to retire.”

The former Arizona star's resolve has served him well since he debuted in the league almost a decade ago. He rarely commands national attention, but neutral fans are learning just how important McConnell is to the Pacers' breakout campaign.

He scored a career-high 10.2 points on 55.6 percent shooting to go with 5.5 assists and one steal in just 18.2 minutes per contest. His combined 27 points and 11 assists across Games 6 and 7 against New York are a key reason why Indiana is competing in its first Eastern Conference Finals since 2014.

McConnell sets the tone on defense and in the beyond-the-box-score type of plays. His motor relentlessly roars, as the 6-foot-1 role player operates on the mindset that he is not even supposed to be in year nine of an NBA career.

“Maybe after my second, or this past contract, it really settled in,” TJ McConnell said. “But I try to play like I don’t belong and that people don’t think I belong, and it just gets me to play harder.”

That type of brutal, self-motivating approach worked legendary wonders for Michael Jordan, and it is enabling McConnell to have an enduring impact in the game he so obviously loves.

McConnell is completely dialed in for Pacers

The record-holder for most steals in an NBA half (nine vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2021) prides himself on befuddling opponents by anticipating a pass and swiping it for a fastbreak score or executing the other kind of heads-up tactics that affect outcomes.

“I’m so caught up in the competition of the game,” he said, per SBNation. “I just have this thing where it’s like, you can control how hard you play. So if you can’t give a hundred percent, what are we even doing? That’s the one thing that I feel like you have full control of.”

But McConnell does not see himself as another “Rudy.” His intangibles and “grit” amplify an already solid skill set that sees him contribute on both offense and defense. More than anything, he wants to be acknowledged as a winning basketball player.

The Pacers' 2023-24 thrill ride could be reaching an abrupt end, but the story of their coming-of-age season cannot properly be told without multiple mentions of the name “TJ McConnell.” Many spirits are breaking following the Tyrese Haliburton news, but this other motivated guard might provide enough glue to keep fans' NBA Finals fantasies alive and intact for a bit longer.

Tip-off for Celtics-Pacers Game 3 is set for Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET.