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Tobias Harris is finding his rhythm with James Harden and new-look Sixers

After some early struggles, Tobias Harris seems to have found his place on offense with James Harden and the new-look Sixers.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Tobias Harris didn’t get off to the best start in the first half of this season. He reverted to some of his more indecisive ways and cooled off from three-point range with fewer attempts. There have still been inconsistent stretches since, but he started warming up from the start of 2022. And after the All-Star break with James Harden in Philadelphia, Harris has started settling into the kind of role the new-look Sixers need him to fill.

Now that Harris is the clear-cut fourth option on the team with Harden around and Tyrese Maxey thriving in a larger role, the Sixers don’t need as much from Harris. They need less creation off the dribble, and more decisive drives, attacks off the catch, and, most importantly, three-point attempts.

Over the last 24 games after the All-Star break, Harris averaged 14.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and three assists, shooting 47.7 percent overall and 40 percent from three to earn a 57.2 true shooting percentage. While his production has understandably dropped with his reduced role in the offense, it’s the way he’s operating that’s key.

Some of the success has been Harris getting back to his best with certain shots inside the arc, specifically with how he’s used swift post-ups against smaller defenders and how efficient he’s been attacking the basket. There has still been a little hesitation when he catches the ball at times, but more often he’s quickly finding lanes to attack and using his strength and typically sound finishing to get to the basket for layups or short floaters. After not being quite as reliable at the rim early in the season when compared to previous years, Harris got going to end the regular season and finished with a highly respectable shooting mark of 69.9 percent within three feet of the basket. He’s even flashed some more quick-thinking playmaking when driving past closeouts, too.

As Harris’s overall field goal attempts have declined next to Harden, he’s cut out some of those more inefficient mid-range pull-ups. His mid-range attempts are down, dropping from two per game before the All-Star break to only 1.3 since. Using more snappy drives and threes has helped his efficiency and given the Sixers more of what they need from Harris in their new offense with Harden.

Harris’s uptick in three-point shooting has been his most valuable development. His accuracy from beyond the arc has been trending up for a while now after a slower start to the season, with him shooting 40.7 percent from deep since the start of January. But after Harden’s arrival, Harris has looked more comfortable playing off the ball, firing off more quick-trigger threes with confidence. After the All-Star break, Harris averaged 4.6 three-point attempts per game, compared to only 3.4 before the break.

Ever since Harden arrived in Philadelphia, he’s been trying to push his teammates to be aggressive and play to their strengths. Whether that’s firing up Maxey on the sidelines during games, or, when it comes to Harris, encouraging players to launch threes when they’re open.

“Yes, all the time,” Harden said after the Sixers’ win against the Knicks on Feb. 27 when talking about wanting Harris to keep shooting threes. “All the time. There are opportunities where Tobias had four or five catch-and-shoot opportunities that he passed up and tried to dribble past somebody. That’s the thing that I’m going to stay in his ear about. He has those opportunities, I don’t care if he missed 20 of them. Those are shots that we need you to take, because more times than not, you’re going to make those shots. As long as I can continue to build that confidence in each and every one of our guys, the better our team will be collectively.”

Now, as Harris is starting to grow more comfortable in the Harden offense (and possibly being spurred on to shoot thanks to his new teammate’s encouragement), he’s taking more of the threes he needs to. Closeouts aren’t fazing him as much. From instant triples off kick-outs, to pick-and-pops with Harden, to trailing looks in transition, Harris has been letting it fly noticeably more.

The Sixers would still benefit from Harris getting his three-point attempts to at least five or six a game, but he’s making a clear step in the right direction. When he’s firing without hesitation, he’s punishing defenses that collapse and send extra defenders at Harden and Joel Embiid, rather than giving opponents a chance to recover when he pauses and over dribbles, or opts for a less efficient mid-range attempt. More than any other change in his game, this is the improvement that needs to last and be built upon.

The Sixers’ first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors will be a tough one. The Raptors, with their plethora of wings and forwards, will be throwing frequent, well-timed double teams at Embiid. More than any other team in the league in recent years, Nick Nurse and his Raptors have known how to bother Embiid.

If Harden’s burst is still lacking, it won’t be easy for him to get downhill and score over the rangy outstretched arms that will be waiting for him. And as for Harris, the Raptors have multiple strong, quick, long defenders they can throw at him to slow him down off the dribble — from impressive rookie Scottie Barnes, to OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam.

Attacking any open lanes to the basket off the catch without hesitating and continuing to be a reliable three-point outlet on solid volume will be important for the success of Harris and the Sixers in this matchup. When the Raptors front and double team Embiid, Harden is going to be able to thread crafty passes through gaps to open shooters, and Harris has to capitalize. The same applies when Harden drives, a second defender comes to dig at the ball, and Harden sends passes back out to the arc. If there’s a time for Harris to launch even more threes (and hopefully make a fair percentage of them), it’s now.

Harris deserves credit for adjusting his game and giving the Sixers more of the offensive approach they need from him. Now, time will tell how effectively he can carry it into the playoffs.

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