De’Anthony Melton happily knocked off previous career highs Friday night as the Sixers pulled away from the Lakers. However, his efforts did not ensure anything resembling a comfortable win.
Melton played an absolutely tremendous two-way game in the Sixers’ 133-122 overtime victory at Wells Fargo Center. His 33 points and eight made three-pointers set new career highs, as did his seven steals.
As a team, the Sixers closed the game in extremely shaky style, allowing the Lakers to erase a 16-point deficit with under four minutes to play (more on that below). Ultimately, the Sixers recovered to score the first 12 points of overtime.
Joel Embiid had 38 points on 14-for-19 shooting and 12 rebounds. James Harden posted 28 points and 12 assists.
The Lakers got 31 points from Anthony Davis and 23 from LeBron James. Austin Reaves scored 25 off the bench. Russell Westbrook recorded a triple-double with 12 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds.
The Sixers were missing Tyrese Maxey (left foot fracture), Georges Niang (right foot soreness) and Danuel House Jr. (left foot laceration). For the Lakers, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Wenyen Gabriel were out with injuries.
Head coach Doc Rivers said before the game that he doesn’t expect either Niang or House to be out for long. Maxey has recently been cleared to resume running.
The 13-12 Sixers will play their second contest of a seven-game homestand on Sunday night against the Hornets. Here are observations on their victory over the Lakers:
An unreal Embiid start
Few individual matchups truly test Embiid, but Davis tends to pose a real challenge. In his last full game before Friday, Davis posted 55 points and 17 rebounds against the Wizards.
Embiid was unquestionably the superior player in the game’s opening burst. He scored 13 of the Sixers’ first 15 points (on 5-for-6 shooting). The MVP runner-up had an aggressive approach immediately, running the floor hard and seeking opportunities to attack early in the shot clock, and it also helped that his jumpers were dropping. Davis didn’t set a great tone in terms of how difficult he’d make Embiid’s work, conceding an easy pick-and-pop jumper on the night’s first play.
Less than four minutes into the game, Davis picked up his second foul when he poked the ball on an Embiid post-up. Lakers head coach Darvin Ham kept him in and paid for that gamble when Davis was whistled for grabbing PJ Tucker off the ball with 4:51 left in the first quarter.
Rivers didn’t sub his star center out the entire period and Embiid certainly rewarded his coach for the extended run. He was at his peak level late in the first, reminding everyone of his immense power and explosiveness with a nasty driving dunk on Thomas Bryant. He then answered a Bryant three with a very impressive one of his own, showing off world-class body control to sink a jumper inches from the Lakers’ bench with 0.7 seconds to go. That gave him 20 points (with just one miss).
Huge Sixers lapses
Patrick Beverley played his usual physical, intense defense on Harden. James also made a valuable contribution in the first quarter by stepping in to draw a charge.
With Embiid sitting, the Lakers re-inserted Davis early in the second quarter and played zone defense. The Harden-led Sixers unit seriously struggled against it. Furkan Korkmaz missed a couple of floaters, Tucker couldn’t hit a corner three, and back-to-back triples by Reaves and Westbrook boosted the Lakers’ surge.
The Sixers completely failed to resurrect the situation with Embiid out. Paul Reed fumbled a Harden pass and then committed his third foul on a Reaves and-one layup. The second-year guard’s free throw put the Lakers up 34-33, capping a 14-0 run. In Reed’s 3:37 of first-half playing time, the Sixers were outscored by 12 points.
Naturally, once Embiid came back in, he bailed out another rough possession against the zone with a long wing three. He was tough for the Lakers to handle as an offensive rebounder, too. Still, for a few more minutes, almost everything besides Embiid was ineffective for the Sixers against the zone. Most possessions lingered until late in the shot clock without the Lakers’ defense needing to meaningfully rotate.
The tide eventually turned in dramatic fashion as the teams combined to make eight consecutive jumpers at one point. Melton hit two of them for the Sixers. Harden also joined the shotmaking party and thrilled the crowd with 55 seconds left in the first half when he shook Dennis Schröder and drained a three through contact, giving the Sixers a 59-58 edge.
Rivers played Montrezl Harrell over Reed to start the fourth. The Sixers held steady during that stretch, thanks in part to a mid-range jumper and a pull-up three from Harden. It still seems that much of the Sixers’ success with Embiid on the bench will ride on Harden’s individual shotmaking.
Embiid’s re-entry didn’t automatically signal a Sixers win. Harden and the Sixers were deeply unconvincing in the final minutes; the Lakers turned one Harden giveaway into a Westbrook dunk and another into an and-one James layup that cut LA’s deficit to 115-110 with 1:07 to go.
Melton sunk what looked like a fitting dagger, but he then committed two turnovers that sustained the Lakers’ life. After a Reaves three, Melton split two free throws to put the Sixers up 120-117. From there, the Sixers were somehow even shakier.
On an after-timeout play, Matisse Thybulle fouled Reaves behind the arc with 9.2 seconds left. Reaves made the first two free throws but missed the third, and the ball caromed out of bounds off the Lakers. Again, the Sixers couldn’t nail the basics. Tobias Harris tried to find Embiid on the ensuing inbounds play, but the Lakers came away with possession in another chaotic sequence and Harris wound up fouling Davis. He went 1 for 2 and the Sixers survived to see overtime.
Embiid opened the scoring in OT with a mid-range jumper and Harden capitalized on several Lakers misses inside, converting an and-one transition layup. The Sixers defended well as a team, and Tucker and Melton grabbed key defensive boards.
The Sixers are lucky that the Lakers didn’t hit the free throws necessary to win in regulation. If they had, the team would be stewing in a disastrous loss.
Outstanding Melton turns the game
The Sixers started with Tucker as their primary defender on James, although they switched frequently in the early stages, including with Embiid. The Sixers’ switching was sharp and Embiid did well in isolation on a couple of plays, although James also missed a few open looks.
What hurt the Sixers most defensively was the Lakers regularly beating them down the floor. The team’s transition defense has been much improved overall after a dire beginning to the season, but Reaves, James and the Lakers were awfully effective in the open court. The Lakers held a 14-2 advantage in fast-break points at halftime. Reaves had 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting.
Thybulle was an important, unlikely source of offense for the Sixers off the bench. He first entered with 2:03 remaining in the second period. Before the half was over, he had three dunks — a baseline drive, an alley-oop assisted by Harden, and a slam from the dunker spot courtesy of Embiid.
In the middle of the third quarter, Rivers had Thybulle replace Tucker, who continued to be passive offensively and finished with three points on 1-for-4 shooting. While the Lakers learned their lesson and didn’t hand Thybulle more dunking chances, he made a corner three that stretched the Sixers’ lead to 93-79.
Melton was the obvious star of the third, though. Embiid has (often reasonably) grumbled about the players around him not being willing enough to fire up threes. For Melton, Friday’s game was the ninth this season he launched at least eight long-distance jumpers. He’s skilled in so many areas — rebounding; anticipating passes; moving the ball sensibly; nailing a bunch of momentum-swinging jumpers — that his odds of making a big impact always feel high. His intuitive sense for what the Sixers need has been valuable, of course, but few non-stars are as equipped to actually provide what the team requires as Melton.
It’s telling that Melton’s seven steals felt somewhat normal. He just habitually knows where the ball is going and gets his hands there at the perfect moment.
In the big picture, we’ll note Melton has now dealt with a back issue for over a month and a game off may be warranted soon. They’ll miss him whenever he sits, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Melton aggravating his injury and being out for an extended period would be painful for the Sixers.