Tobias Harris has talked about having a chip on his shoulder all year. He was snubbed for the NBA All-Star team back in February. And the Philadelphia 76ers’ star forward has been barely acknowledged as an active member of a burgeoning Big Three in Philly.
Not anymore. Not after dropping a game-high 37 points in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Harris put the Sixers on his back during a rocky first half for the Sixers and single-handedly willed them to a 125-118 win over the Washington Wizards. The 28-year-old scored 12 of the Sixers’ 27 first-quarter points — and 28 in the first half — as 10,000 fans cheered on his every move.
“For me, I know who I am. I know my game. I know my ability,” Harris told reporters. “Maybe that has been criticized in the past with different situations and whatnot, but I know one thing I bring to this team night in and night out, I’m somebody that is going to play to win. And that’s something that I just hang my hat on. That gives me the clarity to do whatever is necessary, to have that focus for the team to win.”
Harris knew he needed to take on a bigger role once All-Star center Joel Embiid picked up his third foul. The big man was limited to just 10 minutes in the first half after a few controversial (read: ticky-tack) fouls forced him to the bench. Embiid finished with 30 points after a dominant second half. Harris held it down.
“When he went down, I looked at it kind of like we looked at the whole year when Joel went out,” Harris said, referencing Embiid’s 10-game absence in March. “He goes out with three fouls and it was just the same mentality of where we got to get things rolling, and the opportunities were there for me to be aggressive and get to my spots.”
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Harris Credited His ‘Sparring Partners’
Harris dismissed the notion he had extra motivation on Sunday. His breakout performance wasn’t meant to be a “prove-it game” to silence the haters. However, the additional minutes he’s been logging in the gym, after practice and before practice, certainly had something to do with it. Harris credited two (smaller) teammates for making him tougher: Rayjon Tucker (6-foot-3) and Paul Reed (6-foot-9).
“They are both guys that like to get physical, those two have been like my sparring guys that I have been working with,” Harris said. “We have a lot of fun. We talk a lot of junk when we play in those types of games but that’s really where I’ve been trying to get better at, in the low block and on the post.”
Harris had seen action in just four playoff games before arriving in Philadelphia in 2019. Now he was 21 games under his belt while averaging 16.4 points per game. His commitment to getting into playoff basketball shape started two to three months ago.
“This is the nitty-gritty, this is the playoffs,” Harris said. “I’ve been there only X number of times in my career but I’ve taken something from my playoff experience each time that I want to bring. Stay in it mentally, through the highs and lows of the game, and really be locked in on the play that’s happening now.”
Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons Chime In
The Sixers were in bad shape in the first half, especially after Seth Curry left briefly with a minor stomach injury. He returned and scored 15 points in the second half after a shaky start to Game 1. But it was Harris who kept Philadelphia afloat when the team was mired in a shooting slump. He keeps showing again and again why the Brooklyn Nets aren’t the only squad in the East with a legitimate Big Three.
“Man, it was huge especially in that time,” Embiid said. “I was on the bench and we needed to score and he showed up the whole game, really, but especially in that first half.”
Point guard Ben Simmons had 15 rebounds and 15 assists while helping to lock down Bradley Beal (33 points). Second-year guard Matisse Thybulle was excellent on the Wizards “flame-thrower” as well. Simmons was quick to shine the spotlight back on Harris for stepping up.
“We all know [he should have been an All-Star],” Simmons said. “He’s so talented and gifted, and he continues to get better and better, and especially tonight. You see him early on dominating the game. You just want to keep giving him the ball because he’s feeling it. He was terrific tonight.”