December 10, 2022
You don't pick up a nickname like Mr. Do Something without putting in some serious work on both ends of the floor. But how do you pick a favorite something De'Anthony Melton from Friday night's Sixers win against the Lakers?
Do you focus on his eight threes, burying the Lakers for choosing to leave him in an attempt to slow down other guys? He was sheepish about L.A. abandoning him throughout the night, heaping praise on his teammates for taking attention away from him.
"We got so many guys that draw attention that it opens up space for other players. Tonight was my night, and my teammates kept finding me, and I kept finding open spots."
Do you focus on, and this honestly feels like a misprint, his seven steals across 43 minutes? It was the number his coach was proudest of, and for Melton, there was some inter-team rivalry to think about while collecting those takeaways.
"I think I was tied with Matisse [Thybulle] on steals, so I just wanted to beat him," Melton said. "Listening to the gameplan I thought all that stuff, it mattered, and it took away possessions from them."
We could sit here and go through the highlights, spotlighting a reverse layup or a particular shot or the preposterous length of his arms, and we'd be justified in doing any of those things. But it sort of dulls the scope of his performance to key in on any one thing. The box score was a sight to behold: 33 points (11-for-16 shooting, 8-for-12 from three), four rebounds, two assists, seven steals, plus the admiration of everyone who watched the game.
It was a performance great enough, to put things in perspective, for Melton to walk to the podium with his jersey in his pocket, holding onto the lucky garb as a piece of memorabilia. That jersey is going home to live with Melton's mother, a fact he stated so clearly that you could not question the logic behind it. This was a performance mom could be proud of, and perhaps that is the best marker of all.
"He had a hell of a night," Tobias Harris said Friday. "We definitely don't win that game without him."
What makes Melton's night more remarkable is the constant battle he has been in with his own body. Unlike some of his starrier Sixers teammates, Melton has only missed the odd game here or there, appearing in all but two of Philadelphia's games so far this season. But his availability should not be mistaken as a message that he's in tip-top shape. Melton has battled back tightness on and off throughout the year, trying to soldier through it with the knowledge that they were running out of reinforcements if he went down.
In order to stay ready for games, Joel Embiid told reporters on Friday night, Melton has barely practiced this season, using any off days the Sixers get to take care of his body and do what must be done to be ready when the opening tip goes up. Reporters get to see bits and pieces of that prep process — Melton pushed a sled around the practice facility after the team wrapped a practice up on Thursday, an act he described as part of a "maintenance" process to put himself in the best chance to succeed.
"I'll take [Melton not practicing] every time if he's going to show up to the game and do what he does every single night," Embiid said Friday. "He knows it, I appreciate the effort, because I find myself in that same situation quite a bit, and every single chance that I can even when I'm hurt, I want to be on the floor. So to be able to do the same even though he's dealing with a back injury, I appreciate the effort."
In that way, it is Melton who has helped define whatever claim to toughness (mental or physical) the Sixers have had during this turbulent start to the year. He has been relentless on a team largely defined by their inconsistency, buoyant while others sink.
It looked for a moment that a heroic effort for Melton would go to waste, the Sixers nearly dropping a game they led by nine points with 35 seconds left to go in the fourth quarter. A calamity of errors followed. Three turnovers were committed in the span of roughly 21 seconds, and if it wasn't bad enough for Thybulle to foul Austin Reaves on a three-point attempt with less than 10 seconds left, the Sixers managed to top it moments later, when Harris threw an inbound pass off of Embiid's head and the Lakers came away with a pair of free throws and a chance to win the game.
An Anthony Davis miss at the line is all that saved the Sixers from themselves. Given second life in the overtime session, they would not waste it.
But it still looked like things were going sideways when Russell Westbrook came barrelling down the floor with LeBron James, ready to tie the game with 3:40 to play in overtime. It was Melton, the furthest man from Philadelphia's basket when the Lakers started their break, who busted his ass down the floor and got a contest in, altering Westbrook's attempt to send the Sixers running back the other way. James Harden would score two and draw a foul in the process, and the overtime route was on from there.
It's the type of play that might get swept out of your consciousness on a normal night for Melton, games where the other guys might dominate the box score and relegate him to anonymity. You're often left to shower guys like him with praise for what he does that can't necessarily be quantified. At this moment, though, you see the length, the athleticism, and above all else the effort that allows him to make plays that do stick in the box score. On Friday night, those things all came together to produce the best game of his career.
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