The Philadelphia 76ers were always going to be able to assert themselves in their first-round series by using the Washington Wizards’ lack of size and three-guard lineups against them. In Game 1, as the Sixers won, 125-118, that’s exactly what they did. Joel Embiid scored 30 point despite being limited to 30 minutes after early foul trouble, while Tobias Harris was the main beneficiary.
After having a hard time in his playoff career with the Sixers so far, Harris kicked off this postseason in spectacular fashion. He scored a playoff career-high 37 points (with 28 in the first half) on 15-of-29 shooting, hurting the Wizards’ defense with pick-and-rolls, sharp cuts, post-ups, strong drives, a pair of three-pointers, and 5 free throws. Some of Harris’s success was simply due to his aggressiveness, impressive and diverse shot-making, and a favorable matchup against a smaller team. But one part of his play that was essential in driving the Sixers’ offense was the effectiveness of his scoring — and some of team’s play design — when hunting mismatches.
Going into the game, Doc Rivers and his team knew the Wizards wouldn’t have enough size to continually match up against a 6’8” scorer like Harris. Rivers was also anticipating plenty of switching, and the Wizards simply don’t have the wings to keep up when Harris is seeking switches.
“They do a lot of switching, we knew that,” Rivers said after the game. “Our guys did a great job of finding where that switch was at and took advantage of it. Tobias was huge. And you know, it’s funny, you make all these plans and you have a week of planning what your rotations and everything is going to be. And then a guy gets in foul trouble and everything goes out of the window. So then you have to coach on the fly and I thought our guys have all reacted to it very well.”
One way the Sixers found helpful matchups for Harris was by pushing the pace in transition to find cross-matches. In this play, Seth Curry hurries the ball up the court and as the Wizards rush to cover every Sixer, Rui Hachimura can’t stay on Harris (his ideal assignment) and picks up Curry to prevent a potential pull-up three. In the process, Raul Neto winds up switching onto Harris, who swiftly gets the ball and backs his way into an easy turnaround jumper in the lane:
Post-ups made up a slightly larger portion of Harris’s scoring diet this season (14.7 percent of his possessions, up from 11.4 percent in 2019-20) and were an efficient weapon for him. He ranked in the 69th percentile in post-ups and the 86th percentile in isolation, excelling when bullying his way inside for drives or decisive post-ups. He was also more active in punishing mismatches when possible.
One-on-one scoring, playing against physical defense, and beating smaller defenders in the post are areas that Harris has focused on improving this season. He’s put in extra work with two teammates in particular.
“I’ve got my two sparring partners Paul Reed and Rayjon Tucker,” Harris said after the game. “Those are my two sparring partners, and we just work before and after practice on one-on-ones really and those types of situations.
“They’re both guys that like to get physical and those have been my sparring guys that I’ve been working with. We have a lot of fun. We talk a lot of junk when we’re playing those types of games, but that’s really where I’ve been trying to get better in those areas — on the low block, in the post, and vs. smaller guys.”
At other times in Game 1, Harris flowed straight into pick-and-rolls when he was guarded by smaller defenders. With guards like Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal or Neto trailing around ball screens, Harris doesn’t have to worry about a long wingspan getting in his way with a rearview contest. Instead, it’s easier for Harris to get off floaters in the lane or simply drive ahead of his man to go straight at the Wizards’ bigs to score at the rim (where he’s been highly efficient all season, making a career-high 70.9 percent of his shots within 3 feet). Dwight Howard helped Harris find separation with several solid screens, too:
Lastly, here’s a breakdown of one play where the Sixers used some more creative misdirection to force a switch and create an easy scoring opportunity for Harris (make sure you have your sound on):
Tobias Harris had a playoff career-high 37 points in Game 1, and scored effectively in a variety of ways.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) May 24, 2021
The Sixers also helped set him up in good positions against smaller defenders.
Here's a quick breakdown of one play Philly used to get him a mismatch for an easy score: pic.twitter.com/UDTvjnx6Pe
Even when the Wizards could keep the 6’8’ Hachimura on Harris, the latter generally managed to score anyway by using timely cuts or running off screens into clear jumpers.
“I looked at it kind of like how we’ve been looking at the whole year when Joel went down with injury, what I needed to do for our team to win games at that point,” Harris said after the game. “He goes out with three fouls and it was just the same mentality of, ‘All right, we got to get this thing rolling.’ And the opportunities were there for me to be aggressive and get to my spots and get the shots that I wanted to get.”
This series is an ideal matchup for Harris to thrive. Against a Wizards team that lacks the kind of wings to cover him effectively, Harris should be able to put together a strong scoring run with this kind of aggressiveness and play against favorable mismatches.