NEW YORK -- Unlike P.J. Tucker, De'Anthony Melton was not mentioned by name in Joel Embiid's press conference after the Philadelphia 76ers lost in the second round last May. It is not an accident, however, that the Sixers traded for him shortly thereafter.
"I saw a quote that big fella had said, saying about, 'We need dogs,' and stuff like that. Bringing Tuck in, it wasn't enough, I guess," Melton said, laughing. "No, I'm playing. I guess the organization saw us as scrappy-type players. That's what we like to do. That's the fun we bring to the game, too. We love to go out there and do what we do, no matter what."
Melton said this on Saturday, after making several crucial plays down the stretch of the Sixers' 96-88 victory without Embiid against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. At a nearby locker, Tucker shouted in Melton's direction, loudly agreeing with him.
"I'm following behind [Tucker's] lead," Melton said. "And he's going to keep screaming and yelling no matter what."
Whenever the 6-foot-2 guard shares the floor with Tucker, "they're just out there causing havoc," Tyrese Maxey said. In Game 4, Melton scored all 15 of his points in the fourth quarter and came up with offensive rebounds on back-to-back plays with less than four minutes to go. Entering the final frame, with a chance to sweep the Nets, his mindset was, "Man, I just gotta do something," Melton said. He focused on getting stops, and then shots started falling, too.
"He's a jack-of-all-trades guy," Philadelphia forward Georges Niang said. "He can score, he can defend, he can rebound. He does a lot of great things for us. I'm so thankful he's on our side."
Philadelphia won the game and clinched the series with Embiid sidelined due to a sprained right knee. It pulled this off despite James Harden and Maxey shooting a combined 10 for 38, the team collectively shooting 39.6% and Brooklyn having a double-digit lead early in the third quarter. It was grimy, again, but it was enough to get the Sixers some rest before the start of the second round.
"Every night, it ain't going to be pretty," Tucker said. "It ain't been pretty. We shot the ball bad, couldn't hit shots, couldn't do anything, honestly."
Tucker said that winning this way, without Embiid, "shows the elevation of our team" and "how much we've grown" over the course of the season. With about two minutes left in the third quarter, big man Paul Reed, who started in Embiid's place, hustled back in transition and stole an errant pass, leading to a Maxey 3-pointer. The Nets called timeout, and, in the huddle, the 37-year-old Tucker told the 23-year-old Reed, "That's what the f--- I'm talking about."
"Those are the plays that change games and help this team out," Tucker said. "They don't gotta always be scoring and whatever else. It's just the hustle stuff, communication, play hard."
Philadelphia dominated the boards, with a 38.2% offensive rebounding rate to Brooklyn's 18%, and outscored the Nets 25-10 in second-chance points. Reed finished with 10 points and 15 rebounds, eight of them on the offensive glass, in 32 minutes.
"When he locks in and does his job and focuses on that, he's big," Tucker said. "Second half, he did that. I cussed him out again a couple times first half. Everybody's talking about that. But I don't care. He be mad at me, whatever. If he comes out and plays like that and plays hard and does what he's supposed to do, he helps our team out a lot."
As far as sweeps go, this one wasn't all that impressive. Outside of the opener, the Sixers have not scored efficiently in the halfcourt. They turned the ball over too much when the Nets double-teamed Embiid. Harden shot terribly at the rim and from floater range. In a change from prior years, though, they can put switch-everything lineups out there featuring the kind of role players that can match or exceed the opponent's physicality and manufacture extra possessions.
"We got a bunch of guys that aren't scared of the fight," Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said. "They actually go towards it. And that's a good group to have."
This alone does not guarantee them anything in a potential second-round series against the Boston Celtics. If Embiid is healthy and playing at MVP level, though, and they find themselves in a tight game against a championship-caliber opponent, then it helps. And after the Sixers pushed his team around, Brooklyn coach Jacque Vaughn said that it will be looking for players this offseason who "really love hitting and take it personal when the other team gets a rebound." If nothing else, it's better to be the team inspiring a vanquished foe to say it needs to get tougher, rather than the other way around.