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May 23, 2021

In Sixers' time of need, Tobias Harris was lights out in Game 1 vs. Wizards

Game 1 of the Sixers' 2021 playoff run was setting up to be a disaster. Joel Embiid was in early foul trouble, "Ref, you suck!" chants raining down from the rafters, transition defense looking as bad as it has all season. It was only the first half, mind you, but the Sixers looked the part of a team short on answers against the weakest opponent they'll face all playoffs.

Their saving grace was Tobias Harris. In a season filled with many triumphant moments for Harris, Sunday's first half was the biggest yet — 28 points, a full (well, fuller) arena behind him, the work he has put in on full display to kick off this slate of playoff games.

"He did what he's been doing, man. He's been carrying the weight, and he's aggressive for us," Danny Green told reporters following Sunday's win. "He had to be extra aggressive, but that's what he's been doing all year for us...taking on the challenge, rebounding for us, doing little things. Kept us afloat while Joel was in trouble."

The little things aren't what I'd use to prop up Harris' sensational first-half performance. Even the most casual basketball fan could see he was just cooking the Wizards with his scoring touch, propping up an offense that seemed out of ideas at times on Sunday afternoon.

Standing across from Harris was Rui Hachimura, a talented young forward whose skills are predominantly concentrated on the offensive end. Coming into the series, it seemed reasonable that Philadelphia might force switches instead of hunting Hachimura specifically because he's at least a big body to throw at Harris. The size mismatches elsewhere in the starting lineup, from Russell Westbrook to Raul Neto, are plentiful enough for the Sixers to spend their money looking to get Harris crossmatched.

What fans were treated to was a mix of both, before and after Embiid hit the bench. Harris certainly scored his share of points against smaller players — watching Neto try to contest him in the mid-post felt downright cruel — and was rude as hell to Hachimura, leaving him in the dust no matter where he attacked from the floor. Hachimura isn't exactly a small guy out there, but Harris showed him the difference between veteran-level strength and young-man strength. The difference is not necessarily in the level of toughness, but in the practical use of your body.

Aided by screens from teammates, Harris was able to keep Hachimura where he wanted him for most of the game, only one hip or shoulder lean away from becoming dislodged to open up a shooting window. None of these makes are necessarily easy looks at the rim, but there's an underappreciated level of power and finesse needed to find those inches of space. Harris has mastered that process of discovery over time:

The degree to which he dominated this game was a surprise, sure, but nothing in Harris' bag of tricks was new or out of the ordinary for this season. He has put up bigger numbers in past seasons, but he has never been as efficient as he has been for Philadelphia this year. 

"I know who I am, I know my game, I know my ability," Harris said Sunday evening. "I know one thing that I bring to this team night in and night out, and that's somebody that is gonna play to win. And that's what I just hang my hat on every single night, and I think that gives me clarity to go in these games and to have the focus to do whatever is necessary for the team to have nights like this and you get in those type of rhythms with the work that's put in.

"I would say like the past two or three months I've been preparing for this type of moment, preparing myself. Just telling the team as well, like, this is the nitty-gritty, this is the playoffs. I've been there, you know, only X amount of times in my career but I've taken from each playoff experience something that I want to bring. For us as a group, it's to really stay in mentally through the highs and lows of the game and to really be locked in on the play that's happening right now. That's just the message that I continue to tell the team, and I think that's going to help us for where we're trying to go."

Turning regular-season production into postseason results hasn't exactly been easy for him over the years. When Ben Simmons went down due to injury last season, Harris was expected to be the guy to step up in his absence against the Celtics. If anything, he was much worse — Harris' scoring dipped, his efficiency went through the floor, and the Sixers were unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by a hated rival. Harris' ascent from that very moment is a big reason this team has a chance to make a run at a title this year. Embiid's climb alone would not have been enough, and he seems aware of that. 

To prepare for this moment, Harris has been putting extra time in the gym in with members of Philadelphia's low-minute group. Paul Reed and Rayjon Tucker, who Harris referred to as his "sparring partners," have been in search of any extra reps and practice they can get so they can one day carve out their own NBA roles. In Harris, they've found a willing partner, a guy who wants to be challenged away from the spotlight so that he's ready when his number is called. That practice facility intensity, on top of the work Harris has put in for Philadelphia each night on the floor, helped to keep Harris sharp so that he could rise to the occasion when they needed him.

"We just work before and after practice on one-on-ones in those type of situations," Harris said. "Being able to go up against them, they're both guys that like to get physical. Those have been like my sparring guys that we've been working with, that I've been working with, and you know we have a lot of fun. We talk a lot of junk when we're playing those type of games, but that's really where I've been trying to get better at in those areas — on the low block, in the post, and vs. smaller guys — that was just one of the things that I've been doing during that time."

Seriously, just look at what this man was doing to poor Neto. Despicable stuff:

Perhaps the past humblings were necessary for Harris to turn into this version of himself. It has certainly helped to have Doc Rivers in his corner, the man who has coaxed the two best years of Harris' career out of him. Harris has always had the desire to lead from the front, and he was perhaps their most vocal and engaged leader last season as the team was constantly falling apart around him. This year, he has the resume and the respect to prompt others to follow him.

He is not going to score 37 points a night in these playoffs, and it's exceedingly unlikely he steals the mantle of most important player from Joel Embiid, who carried Philadelphia as Harris began to tail off down the stretch. But his partnership with the big fella does not get the attention it deserves, perhaps because many view this team through the lens of how Embiid and Ben Simmons work together. Harris has no illusion who the alpha dog is in Philadelphia, but he knows when that guy is off of the floor, it is time for him to seize the reins.

"Honestly, when he [got in foul trouble], I looked at it kinda like how we're looking at it the whole year, when Joel went down with injury. You know, what I needed to do for our team to win games at that point," Harris said Sunday. "He goes out with three fouls, and it was just the same mentality of, 'Alright, we got to get this thing rolling.' And opportunities were there for me to be aggressive and get to my spots and get the shots I want to get...but the biggest thing is we had enough mental focus to really come out in the second half and defend, try to get as many stops as we could and let that fuel our offense. We found a good rhythm, and we know that's the blueprint to our success and Game 2 we got to bring even more of that."

Harris knows who he is and what he can do. There is great power in that, and it was that awareness that kept Philadelphia alive long enough for the cavalry to arrive.

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