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Tobias Harris adds a statement to his impressive season vs. Lakers

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Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Tobias Harris may well miss out on making his first All-Star team this season due to the sheer amount of talent in the Eastern Conference, but he’s been playing at that kind of level.

Before even getting into the improvements he’s made this season, his numbers are excellent. Harris is second on the Philadelphia 76ers in scoring at 20.1 points per game, while also averaging 6.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks. He’s shooting 52.5 percent overall, including a stellar 46.1 percent from three (on 4.8 attempts). Put that together, and he easily has the best True Shooting Percentage of his career at 61.9.

Harris’s latest statement came in the Sixers’ biggest test of the season so far — a matchup against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. He finished with 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting (2-of-4 from three), 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal. At the other end of the floor, he continued his improved defense as well, which was vital against the Lakers’ massive frontcourt. Most importantly, to cap off the night after the Sixers’ offense struggled down the stretch in the fourth quarter, Harris took control of the ball, drove down the lane, and rose up for the game-winning jumper.

“It was just a multiple option play,” Doc Rivers explained after the game. “I thought Danny Green read it perfect. The first option, we set a pin down with Seth [Curry] for Joel [Embiid]. We told him to give it a good look and if it’s not there, throw it to Seth. Tobias slips into a pick-and-roll, they’re switching everything, and whoever is on Tobias, Tobias will be at the nail. Then we went flat, the spacing was great. So it was great that we worked a set down to the last option. Kind of nice to see that, showed a little bit of composure.”

Harris knew he’d have a chance to find a favorable switch and execute. “We came out of the timeout and me and Seth were talking, and basically discussing how they are more likely to switch that pick-and-roll,” Harris said. “That’s a shot I work on time and time again, but in those moments just being confident enough to let it go and being okay with the result. Tonight, it fared well.”

“It’s a big moment. I think that was a big game for us, in general.”

“Some people think we haven’t played anybody,” he added. “For us, we wanted to go against the champs, we wanted to see where we are at, and see how we matched up. And that was that.”

Harris did what the Sixers needed him to offensively before he even got to the game-winning shot, too. He stayed aggressive from three, worked well off the dribble, and completed a bunch of assertive drives to the rim to drop in strong finishes through contact. Harris also ranks in the 84th percentile for his scoring as a pick-and-roll ball-handler this season, and he handled his pick-and-roll opportunities well against the Lakers’ elite defense.

Simply put, Harris has been giving the Sixers what they need from him all season. Now that he’s back with Doc Rivers, the head coach he was at his best with when they were on the Clippers, things seem to have clicked for Harris yet again. After a bad game to open the season, Harris has maintained the decisive mindset he needs to thrive.

Rivers said before the season that he wanted to get Harris back to being a quick-decision player and to cut down on his dribbling, which was a problem last season. On January 5, I wrote about how Harris was playing with the kind of decisiveness that he and the Sixers need, and he’s continuing to deliver. He’s making quick passes, attacking swiftly and with purpose when beating closeouts or driving to the rim, and he’s firing away from beyond the arc without hesitating — from spot-ups, to trailer threes on fast breaks. This has helped him rank in the 89th percentile in transition, where he’s doing a lot of damage this season. Harris has also cut down his mid-range attempts from 3.1 per game in 2019-20 to 2.4 this season, while reducing his average dribbles per touch from 2.05 to 1.66.

Harris’s shooting will probably regress somewhat. It’s unlikely he’ll keep shooting 46.9 percent on catch-and-shoot threes all season, and he could do with boosting his efficiency in another area by increasing his low free throw rate of 2.4 attempts per game. However, the decisiveness he’s playing with and the kind of quick-trigger shots he’s taking are exactly what he needs for sustainable improvement. The hesitancy that hurt his value as a shooter and floor spacer last season has gone.

“I think it’s just the way we’ve been playing as a team, the system that’s been implemented and what Doc has come in with, and really just the attitude from all of us out there,” Harris said earlier this month when asked about how Rivers helps him. “I mean, it’s not necessarily what positions he’s putting myself in, but more what positions he’s putting the whole group in. And the mentality and attitude of, you know, playing together, playing as one, doing what we can for the next guy, making the right pass — going from good to great. And just that mentality for myself, personally, for my game, helps myself be in a flow, play better. And just going off that, feeding off other guys.”

“We just stay on him,” Rivers said recently when talking about Harris’s decision-making. “It was the same thing in L.A. Just quick decisions now. You catch it, shoot it. You catch it, drive it. If you dribble, pass it. It’s pretty simple for him. When he stays in that formula, he is unbelievable. He’s a train going downhill. He’s got a beautiful shot. It’s when he hesitates and guys get in tune is when he gets himself in trouble.”

Harris has been playing better than ever on defense, too. He’ll always have limitations with his lateral quickness, but he’s as nimble and engaged as you can ask for on the ball right now, he’s providing solid defense around the rim and in the post (which was particularly on display against the Lakers), and maintaining good activity off the ball. He’s often made a positive defensive impact this season, which has been a valuable part of his overall contribution.

A 24-point outing and game-winning shot against the best team in the league is the highlight of Harris’s season now, but his performance against the Lakers reiterated the ways he’s been succeeding this season overall. He’s scoring efficiently, gunning from three-point range, upping his game defensively, and making the kind of quick decisions that he and the Sixers need to be at their best.

After the game, Harris was asked about being an All-Star candidate. “For myself, it’s always been about winning and letting that handle itself,” he said. “I’ve been playing consistently at an All-Star level every night.”

“I’m not one to always toot my own horn, but in the past I’ve had a couple times where I felt like I should have been there and didn’t make it. So that would be my little pitch for it,” he added with a laugh.

Harris has dealt with a lot of criticism since arriving in Philly, and some of it has been completely justified. But as he and the Sixers work to make real improvements this season, there’s not much more he could be doing to maximize his value at both ends of the floor right now.