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De’Anthony Melton emerging as consistent playoff contributor for the Sixers

Melton was a bright spot in the Sixers' Game 3 loss, finishing with 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting from three-point range and adding eight rebounds and four steals off the bench.

Sixers guard De'Anthony Melton drives to the basket against Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum during Game 3. Melton finished with 14 points on Friday.
Sixers guard De'Anthony Melton drives to the basket against Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum during Game 3. Melton finished with 14 points on Friday.Read moreYong Kim / Staff Photographer

The Wells Fargo Center’s Game 3 crowd again turned restless during Friday’s fourth quarter, after James Harden passed up another seemingly open lane to the basket. But the ball wound up in the hands of De’Anthony Melton, who buried a three-pointer that kept the 76ers within range of the Boston Celtics.

During an Eastern Conference semifinal series when Harden and Tyrese Maxey have struggled since the Sixers’ Game 1 victory, Melton has arguably been his team’s steadiest guard on both ends of the floor. He finished with 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting from deep while adding eight rebounds and four steals off the bench as a bright spot in Friday’s 114-102 loss. That stability has been a goal for Melton since he toggled in and out of the Memphis Grizzlies’ rotation during last season’s playoffs, which became part of the reason why he was available for the Sixers to acquire in a draft-night trade last summer.

“That was the biggest thing for me: making sure I stayed consistent and always [being] able to provide for my team,” Melton told The Inquirer earlier this week. “As long as I’m doing that, that means I’m out there on the floor.”

Like his backcourt counterparts Friday, Melton missed six of his first eight shots — and one make only counted after an official review overturned an incorrectly called shot-clock violation — before drilling both of his three-point tries in the final frame. A corner shot with 7 minutes, 35 seconds left cut the Celtics’ lead to 95-89, and his launch from the left wing got the Sixers within 97-92 about two minutes later. Melton also played 30 minutes, partially because of starting forward Tobias Harris’ foul trouble and partially because of the Sixers’ attempts to contain the Celtics’ aggressive drivers.

And on a night Sixers coach Doc Rivers expressed frustration that his team again was beat on hustle plays such as loose balls and offensive rebounds, Melton was responsible for a stretch that featured the former. In the second quarter, Melton poked the ball away from the Celtics’ Malcolm Brogdon near the right wing and then hit the deck to save it from going out of bounds. As the ball rolled to the Sixers’ end of the court, Melton regained his footing and eventually wound up with the ball in his hands. He missed the driving push shot, but Harris was in the vicinity for the easy putback.

» READ MORE: Is James Harden the new Ben Simmons? He must reverse course to salvage this Sixers series.

Friday’s performance came after Melton scored 17 first-half points and made his first five three-point attempts in the Sixers’ Game 1 victory, an outing Rivers said “saved” the Sixers while playing without NBA MVP Joel Embiid. Melton then scored just two points on 1-of-5 shooting in Wednesday’s Game 2 blowout defeat, unsurprised that the Celtics were more focused on preventing his looks with quicker close-outs but vowing “to do a better job of just still finding ways to get open.”

Melton let it fly more in Game 3, providing a reliable kick-out target when teammates lured the help defender away from him and into the paint. It was a callback, of sorts, to Game 1, when reserve forward Georges Niang described a play in which he drove and “kind of got caught in no-man’s land, and [Melton’s] just hauling ass around the three-point line.”

“He just caught it and let it rip after running full-speed — and De’Anthony’s pretty fast,” Niang said. “The coolest thing that I’ve seen is he has a quicker release than I thought. I thought I got rid of it quick, but I don’t even jump. The fact that he can get rid of it quick is pretty impressive.”

Versatile Melton

These are the results after Melton’s regular season marked by adaptability. He played in 77 of the Sixers’ 82 games while averaging a career-high 27.9 minutes, even while managing an ongoing back issue. He spent time as a starter and reserve, which came with offense-initiating and off-ball responsibilities, while the Sixers managed early-season foot injuries to Harden and Maxey and experimented with Maxey coming off the bench. Melton averaged 10.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists and shot 39% from beyond the arc and a career-best 48.4% from two-point range.

Melton also remained tasked with guarding lethal perimeter scorers and with making disruptive plays on that end of the floor. He ranked fourth in the NBA in total deflections (234), and second in total steals (126) during the regular season.

» READ MORE: The Sixers struggled to find their rhythm in Joel Embiid’s return. After a Game 2 stinker, they need to find it fast.

“He’s had a heck of a year, [with] ups and downs,” Niang said. “But the thing is he never changes his [temperament]. He’s always a slow-speaking dude from California, always cracking jokes.”

Melton has been cognizant of maintaining that ideal “mental space, even when stuff ain’t going right” during this playoff run, after last year’s postseason playing time (and production) with the Grizzlies drastically fluctuated.

In Memphis’ first-round win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Melton did not play in two out of the six games and played less than eight minutes in two other matchups. In the second round against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, he scored in double figures in three out of the series’ six games and had three games with multiple steals or blocks — but shot 38.3% from the floor.

Almost a year later, Melton had to recenter himself after going 2-for-9 in the Sixers’ playoff opener against the Brooklyn Nets. He responded by making five of his eight attempts in Game 3 of that series, before scoring 15 fourth-quarter points on 5-of-7 shooting to help the Sixers pull away in their close-out Game 4.

“You’ve got to have confidence in yourself and understand that you put in the work,” Melton said. “You understand what needs to happen. Don’t overthink it.”

» READ MORE: Top 10 Philly vs. Boston sports moments

That finish in Brooklyn carried over to his hot-shooting start against the Celtics, when he said he fed off the team’s energy while recognizing that multiple players would need to contribute more scoring in Embiid’s absence. He went a bit further after that Sixers victory, saying, “I’ve been waiting to play in the playoffs. I’ve been waiting to just light it up. I think we’ve all been waiting for this series right here.”

And for the Sixers to pull even with the Celtics on Sunday afternoon, they will need Melton to remain steady.

“He’s doing a lot of things that we need him to do,” Maxey said. “He’s just very focused right now.”