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3 observations after Melton exits early, Harris struggles again, Sixers fall to C's

3 observations after Melton exits early, Harris struggles again, Sixers fall to C's originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

BOSTON — The Celtics pulled away late and notched a ninth consecutive win Tuesday night at TD Garden.

Though the Sixers made things interesting, they ultimately did not look to be in the same class.

Boston improved to 46-12 this season with a 117-99 victory. The Sixers dropped to 33-25.

Jaylen Brown scored 31 points on 11-for-14 shooting. Jayson Tatum posted 29 points and Kristaps Porzingis tallied 23.

Tyrese Maxey's 32 points led the Sixers.

Joel Embiid (left knee meniscus procedure), Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise) and KJ Martin (right ankle impingement) remained out. Martin said Tuesday morning that he suffered his injury when he leaped for a chase-down block and landed on his heel. He said he’d been feeling a bit better the past few days.

The Sixers also ruled De’Anthony Melton out in the third quarter because of back spasms. Tuesday’s game was Melton’s third following a long-term absence because of a lumbar spine injury.

“We’re certainly concerned that it’s the same thing because we’ve taken a lot of time off trying to get it in a better place,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said postgame. “But I haven’t really gotten a report on that yet.”

The Sixers will host the Hornets on Friday night. Here are observations on their loss in Boston:

A small-ball spark 

Buddy Hield helped the Sixers avoid another slow start by sinking two quick three-pointers. Maxey zoomed in for a layup that gave the team an 11-4 edge.

The Celtics immediately snapped into a higher gear, responding with a 12-0 run. Jrue Holiday capped it with a fast-break layup after Derrick White ripped the ball from Tobias Harris.

The game deviated from a typical script late in the first quarter when Nicolas Batum assumed a small-ball center role for the second straight game over Mo Bamba. Nurse used a frontcourt of Batum and 6-foot-6 rookie Ricky Council IV against the 7-foot-3 Porzingis and Al Horford. It didn’t take long for both big men to exploit the size mismatch and convert layups.

However, the Sixers’ offense was a major plus. They got driving layups from Kyle Lowry and Maxey. Council added a tough banked-in bucket.

With that unit beginning to cook, Nurse waved Maxey up the floor like an enthusiastic third-base coach and watched him score an and-one hoop. A put-back Council jam tied the contest at 30-all with 7.6 seconds left in the first quarter.

The Sixers managed to play briskly and drive sharply during that stint while committing zero first-quarter turnovers. Any small-ball look involves risk and requires offensive sharpness, but the Sixers’ showing Tuesday night was encouraging.

Bamba did eventually enter as well and posted 10 points and six rebounds. Paul Reed had a down night and was scoreless in 14 minutes.

“We didn’t start Batum tonight because we were going to use him kind of as the backup five,” Nurse said. “That was a good spark by those guys, obviously. We thought we had a matchup with (Luke) Kornet in there to bring Mo in and just take a look at that lineup.

“He did some decent things. He certainly made a couple shots and was protecting the rim pretty good while he was in there, too. So it was a good stretch for him.”

Harris’ struggles still glaring  

Harris went 3 for 11 from the floor in the first half, which is what he’d shot Sunday when the Sixers lost to the Bucks.

He had unconvincing leaners blocked and saw mid-range jumpers fall short. In general, the 31-year-old forward lacked force and decisiveness on both ends of the floor. Whenever he fell slightly behind a play, Harris didn’t show much ability to find another workable angle, burst into the picture, or otherwise fight back.

Harris hasn’t cited the left hip injury that sidelined him for two games earlier this month as problematic and he has not appeared on the Sixers’ injury reports. Still, his play of late means that it remains valid to keep noting that somewhat recent injury context. The obvious bottom line is the Sixers need his level to increase considerably.

To open the third quarter, Harris failed to finish inside through contact and had a corner three go in and out. He's shot 17 for 53 (32.1 percent) since the All-Star break.

Again, Harris wasn’t the only Sixer to struggle. Kelly Oubre Jr. also had a poor shooting night, hitting just 1 of 6 field goals. Hield scored no points after those two early triples.

“We’ve got to get them some more drive-and-kick opportunities, some more open shots when we can collapse the paint,” Maxey said. “Buddy and K9, they’re two confident guys, so they’ll shoot the ball well in the future.”

Sixers waste strong nights from Maxey and Council

Leaning heavily on Maxey, the Sixers entered intermission facing a 53-51 deficit. Boston stretched its lead further by scoring the first 11 points of the third quarter.

Maxey played an aggressive, sensible, occasionally sensational game as the Sixers' top option. He worked through physicality well and seemingly kept the Sixers churning on his own at times.

The first-time All-Star put up 24 field goals Tuesday and displayed the attacking mindset Nurse wants to see with Embiid out.

“Early in the year I used that number of 20 shots for him,” Nurse said pregame. “That’s when Joel was playing, so it stands to reason that number should go up a little bit when there’s all of Joel’s shots to be distributed. We knew this would be a work in progress for him to learn to point guard, learn exactly how to do that. But again, I keep saying err on the side of aggressiveness.”

Council's effort and strength shined, too. He and Cameron Payne (13 points in 16 minutes) were key to the Sixers' run early in the fourth quarter.

Over 19 minutes, Council recorded 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting and four rebounds. Both this outing and Council's consistently high-energy, no-fear approach should supplement his case for steadier minutes moving forward.

“Just knowing what I do,” Council said. “They haven’t really asked anything different of me. Play hard, offensive rebound, defensive rebound, play defense, cut. I don’t think that’s going to change this year. Maybe next year a bigger role will present itself, but I’m happy doing my role. ... I’m not tripping about having the ball in my hands. I’m just doing whatever I can to help my team win.”

Council was stellar in Boston, but the Sixers needed more positive performances (and fewer clunkers) to beat the Eastern Conference's top team without Embiid.