April 19, 2022
In the early days of James Harden's Philadelphia tenure, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers made a few detours in postgame pressers to make sure we were paying attention to Tobias Harris. At that moment, it felt like a coach trying to keep a player struggling with his role a boost, keeping him in the proverbial boat with the knowledge that they would need him to perform to have a shot at their ultimate goal.
Something has finally clicked for Harris during the season's stretch run. He was one of Philly's standouts in an emphatic Game 1 win over Toronto, and he stepped up once again in Game 2, giving the Sixers 23 points and 10 rebounds in addition to three blocks, imposing his will on both ends in an effort to push the Sixers to a 2-0 lead.
You don't traditionally think of a guy making $36 million as someone who is expected to serve as the team's connective tissue, but Harris is in a unique spot as a result of their ever-shifting roster. James Harden's arrival planted him as the firm No. 2 behind Joel Embiid in the pecking order, and Tyrese Maxey's dynamism in Year 2 has vaulted him up the team hierarchy, the Sixers introducing (and even spamming) new wrinkles involving Maxey to capitalize on his second-side scoring. That leaves Harris in a place where he has to bend to the will of the other guys, not dictate the terms of the offense. Even before Harden's arrival, the fit concerns with Harris on this team were a frequent point of discussion around the city.
Philadelphia's offensive success through two games flows in part out of Harris' adaptation. Meandering possessions have been cut from his diet almost entirely. When he is attacking from the mid-post, it's because the Raptors have handed him a favorable matchup against a much smaller guy like Fred Van Vleet. And his pace from the corners and the wing, where he is either getting shots up quickly or moving toward the basket with a purpose, has contributed to the team's improved ball movement and shot quality, once piece of the greater whole.
He did not land here on accident. After their Game 2 win, Harris explained to reporters that a conversation with Rivers helped push him in the right direction, and continued work to get it right has allowed him to feel comfort within this new role.
"I think the biggest adjustment for me is when we actually sat down and talked and just had a real conversation. And he told me what he envisions me doing and how I could do it at a very high level to help the group," Harris said. "From there, I was basically at peace with that and kind of never looked back from that time. I understand keeping the group as a whole together, making sure everybody in the right spirit and mind is big for us as a team, especially toward this run we're trying to [go on]...it's what this game is about, it's what life is about, adjusting and adapting.
"I talked to him before, this is like the first time in my career that catch and shoot was like an emphasis for me. Whereas in past years prior, it was more, I'd catch the ball, isolate, wait, hold. It was just evaluating how the be more efficient in the role. That was a big emphasis from the All-Star break, was catching that ball and shooting quick. For me, that was an adjustment, but there's a lot of extra hours in the gym and hard work of adjusting to it, being able to let it fly. For me, I'm in a great rhythm, great groove right now."
There is a clear difference between the Harris of this moment and the Harris who took the floor to start this year. Understanding that the corner can be a source of success, rather than a spot where he's placed to get out of the way, has Harris making some of the quickest (and best) decisions of his career. Compare the sort of three-point attempts he's getting and taking now to where he was at during his cold run of form and you'd hardly even believe he's the same player.
To some degree, this is another example of the downstream impact of James Harden joining the Sixers. Despite Harden's scoring issues and any long-term concerns about his body holding up, his arrival has moved everybody (including Embiid) into more simplified roles. Harden's ability to handle most of the creative burden means other guys on the roster can serve as play finishers rather than initiators. It puts Harris in a spot where he moves and plays on instinct, pushing his best qualities to the forefront and minimizing whatever qualities hold him back.
If you were paying close enough attention, Rivers was also not totally off on Harris' importance during his slightly premature boosting campaign. The vet forward was tasked with a number of tough assignments after the All-Star break, ranging from Karl-Anthony Towns in the post-break opener to DeMar DeRozan and even Kevin Durant in the Brooklyn massacre. The only performance on that end that stands out in a bad way is that Nets debacle, and given the team's dismal performance as a group, it's unfair to pin all the blame on Harris' ability to stop a god-level scorer in a game where the entire team had nothing to offer.
Monday night, Harris was the primary defender on Pascal Siakam for more time than anybody else, and the results tilted heavily in Philly's direction — Siakam shot 1/5 with Harris guarding him, scoring just two points across roughly 29 possessions against Harris. Siakam has added plenty to his game since Embiid managed to slow him down in the 2019 series, but Harris made him work hard for the little he was able to get, and Rivers called the focus he's had on that end the best he has seen coaching him across several years and multiple teams.
Harris, as you might expect, is fully aware of what the knocks against him were coming out of college and throughout his career in the league.
"That was the biggest knock on me, I couldn't play defense. As the years have gone on, I've worked on my lateral quickness and my body to be able to be healthy and slide, to be better laterally. Anytime I'm on the floor and have that opportunity to embrace going up and challenging somebody, making their life hard out there, I try to take advantage of it," Harris said. "I think for us as a team to make this run, the guys that we'll play against, there's a lot of forwards — it's an important position in the NBA — being able to stop them is going to be important."
Though Harris picked up a few fouls guarding in space on Monday night, he also showed where has grown. He can be a little too handsy for his own good at times, but Game 2 had multiple examples of Harris using his strength by going chest-to-chest with Raptors players, staying in front legally, and finding opportunities to get his hands on the basketball.
Should they see this series through, there are stiffer tests ahead for Harris and the Sixers as a whole. It's easy to think now that his defensive burden might go down in a series where Matisse Thybulle is a full-time player, but Thybulle's minimization in the home portion of the series might suggest that he may have less to say during this run than many expected. Danny Green's revival has helped with Philadelphia's floor spacing, but Green being a fixture would put more pressure on Harris to be a stopper.
To put it lightly, it has been a long, trying year for Harris, and an up-and-down ride in Philadelphia basically always. He arrived here after a stint as the feature guy in Los Angeles, trying to make it work as a fourth (sometimes fifth) option on a Sixers team that had a reasonable shot to win a title. He struggled to play within the middle of the messy 2019-20 Sixers, through no real fault of his own, and responded with a near All-Star campaign last season, often serving as Philly's closer in their race to the No. 1 seed. But a horrific Game 7 outing and a brutal start to this year led to Harris' frustration boiling over on the floor in early January when he was spotted yelling, "Don't f**king clap" late in a home win over Houston.
During the highs and lows, Harris has managed to keep a sane perspective throughout that ride, famously saying, "Nobody died, I just got booed" when he had his chance to discuss the January outburst. Inside the locker room, he has been one of the guys described as keeping things light with the team and (in his words) "laser-focused," Harris wanting to make sure no one gets too on edge. They will need different things from him at different points in this run, and Harris sounds and looks at peace with it.
"To have a full impact on this team, you may not get the same amount of shots, but you can make a bigger impact on it defensively. And I've kind of just embraced that challenge," Harris said Monday. "It's just trying to figure out different ways to be impactful for the group and help us play winning basketball."
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