Back in late February early March, James Harden was encouraging Tobias Harris to shoot more catch-and-shoot threes.
If there were any frustrations for the former MVP in Brooklyn earlier this season playing alongside a legendary marksmen like Kevin Durant (who spends plenty of time spotting up or navigating screens beyond the arc) then Philadelphia’s roster figured to pose similar frustrations.
The Sixers have several ball-dominant players. And not a ton of three-and-D dudes, the player archetype which has traditionally unleashed Harden’s inner-destroyer-of-worlds. So once James arrived, it was crystal clear that Harris was going to need to “Morey-Ball” makeover his game in a flash. More threes, more shots at the rim, more defense, and pretty much less everything else.
The team would need him to take a backseat offensively and focus on being a better defender. They’d need him to step outside his comfort zone and simply shoot the open triple when Harden or Embiid draws a double.
Whatever else Harris provides, much of what the scoring forward does naturally (isolation, midrange game, sizing up a defense) was suddenly relegated to gravy. And most of the meals Chef Doc Rivers was cooking up didn’t call for meat juice.
Through two playoff games, while the dominance of Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey have overshadowed almost everything else, Harris has implemented some critical changes in his game and played a crucial supporting role. Suddenly, after dipping a bit in the overall rankings, the Sixers look like contenders again and Harris’ play has a lot to do with the shift.
Yes, he struggled mightily when Harden first came aboard. Fans feared his instinct to dribble instead of shoot was destined to plague this team. Remember this stuff?
But things look different lately. As our Tom West wrote pre-playoffs: “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.”
Both coach Rivers and Harris have talked about how being a catch-and-shoot player wasn’t emphasized for Tobias as much in the past. He needed some time to really focus on that. But as usual he checked his ego at the door and went all in to improve since the All-Star Break.
Those last two games probably deserve more weight than the first 15 he played with The Beard. So credit where credit it’s due. His TS percentage is a blistering 78.2 percent. He’s chipped in four blocks and a steal. He has the sixth best +/- of the playoffs, now at a +40. (Maxey is a +42, Harden +31, Green +30, and Embiid +23).
The Sixers sport a 67.1 percent league best TS this postseason. They boast the top offensive rating of 135.8 per 100 possessions among the 16 remaining squads. Toronto actually had the third best defensive rating over the regular season’s final 25 games. But it hasn’t been close to good enough to slow Philly down yet.
Harris and Maxey have been a central part of why:
Through games on April 18, which NBA players have done the most (or least) with their minutes during the 2022 playoffs, per TPA?— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) April 19, 2022
Full data on @SportsMathNet: https://t.co/YBVQW2FUGr pic.twitter.com/0PdMei9F2g
Here’s the Tennessee product’s shot chart through two games vs. Toronto, a series many felt he would struggle in because of the Raptors’ plethora of rangy, versatile defenders:
Harris has taken eight triples, and drained six, good for a red hot 75 percent from Diamond St.
He’s not taking a ton of long twos, but he is getting to the rim. When the Raps try to deploy the diminutive pitbull Fred VanVleet on him, No. 12 has had success blending power on the move, finesse on the finish.
The clip above of Harris passing up open triples to dribble futilely was compiled Feb. 28. He’s come a long way in those seven weeks. Take a look:
What jumps out the most in the clip is the lack of midrange bricks in Tobi’s profile. We won’t expect him to shoot 64 percent moving forwards, but he’s trimmed down on well-contested long twos.
Months ago, we bemoaned how he missed Ben Simmons’ presence, since it cut down on his total transition looks. Well, those looks are back. The team is getting stops so he’s getting some early-offense attempts where he can get all the way to the cup. And because Harden and Embiid command so much attention, Harris can cut for bunnies and plow past a scrambling defense.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Tobias Harris is suddenly playing some of the best basketball of his career at the most crucial point of the Sixers season.
After they took that commanding 2-0 series lead, head coach Doc Rivers had high praise for the 11-year pro. This cat is still learning new tricks.
“He’s been great,” Rivers told reporters. “He’s helping now. He’s got a tough [assignment] guarding [Pascal] Siakam. He had three amazing helps today that we talked about with our digs. So this is as focused as I’ve seen Tobias defensively ever — I’m saying here and L.A. He’s been fantastic.”
Harris touched upon what he’s tried to do in slowing down Siakam, who was simply unstoppable heading into these playoffs. Spicy P dropped 37 on Philly at the end of the regular season. Fans had every right to be worried there’d be more of his dizzying dominance heading into Game 1:
But Siakam is averaging just 22 points on 19 attempts through two. Philadelphia has done a good job on him as a team. Harris deserves a lot of credit as primary defender on many of those possessions. (Unfortunately, the best way to scout Harris’ D on Siakam might be to watch how the seas suddenly part for the Cameroonian when Georges Niang takes his turn).
“Just making his looks hard, he’s a tough matchup with his size but I tried to use my quickness laterally and my strength to be able to make him make second moves out there,” Harris said. “Just really reading some of the things he wants to do. And make every look that he gets a tough look.”
Harris doesn’t mind getting a little recognition for all of the hard work he’s put in on the defensive end.
“When I came into the league that was like the biggest knock on me that I couldn’t play defense and as the years have gone on I worked on my lateral quickness and my body to be able to be healthy and slide, to be better laterally,” Harris said. “For me it’s special to kind of have people looking at me now as a defender, and I embrace that.”
I combed the game to see if I could find some of his better defensive possessions. You’ll also likely catch a few of those help “digs” Rivers praised from Game 2:
You can see Harris was playing some stalwart on-ball D, some cagey help D, and finishing possessions by snagging well-contested rebounds. Fans were very worried about Toronto getting tons of second-chance buckets. Harris practiced good fundamentals by boxing out glass-crashing Raptors allowing other teammates to rebound cleanly. His eight boards per game ranks 12th overall in the playoffs.
Coach Rivers sums up Harris’ maturity and leadership by acknowledging how much he’s had to sacrifice offensively over the years.
“It’s huge,” Rivers continued. “And it took him some getting used to. You gotta be patient with guys. This guy has given everything for this team. Like he started out as a second option, then Tyrese got going, and then we bring James in. Tobias has had to make more changes than anybody on our team. And he keeps doing it without complaint, and it’s such a great example for what a good teammate should be. And he’s been doing it every night,” Rivers said.
That’s some really high praise from coach Rivers, who isn’t always quite this effusive.
And Harris noted as much with a joke that had a packed room of reporters cracking up. “Man, that’s a nice comment from Doc,” Harris said when told of his coach’s kind words. “I think I’ma buy him a box of Crumbl tomorrow.”
Perhaps Doc can enjoy a few of the cookies Harris partners with while scouring over film as the series heads up North. They’ll rely on Harris even more as a point-of-attack defender now that Matisse Thybulle cannot play due to vaccination status.
“Yeah I’ve had to make some adjustments but I think having a coach like that,” Harris shared, “I think the biggest adjustment for me was 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 can do it at a very high level to help the group. And from there I was just basically at peace with that and never looked back from that time.”
Rivers mentioned that part of what’s made Harris so good is playing “without thought just kind of being aggressive straight line.”
So the challenge here will be if Harris can play with the same thoughtless, aggressive mindset in flow, even when the shots aren’t falling.
Building on progress
Harris hasn’t fully embraced the whole 3-and-D thing. And to be fair, the team may not want him to. Tony Snell, for example, isn’t going to contribute seven dimes and 10 free throw attempts, through just a couple ball games. But the point is that Harris’ shooting profile still isn’t exactly 2018 Houston Rockets:
But what if he takes a handful of these contested two-point shots and doesn’t drain them? If he misses a few of those looks could that plant seeds of doubt on his next wide open corner three? Can he remain “thoughtless” and forget the immediate past, staying with his new role?
One basketball cliche is to focus on the defensive end of the floor and try not to worry about making or missing shots. And Harris can fall back on that. He’s earned the chance to continue guarding Siakam.
A few of us at LB figured Siakam would be the second best player in this series. With his defense, Harris has helped ensure that Maxey deserves the that honor so far. Maybe Maxey should buy Harris a box of Crumbls too.
The Sixers lineup doesn’t unlock the best scoring version of James Harden the way adding a couple players like Robert Covington or Ben McLemore might do down the road. But the reverse has happened. Harden has unlocked the most efficient versions of Harris, Maxey, and Embiid. And that might be a trade off the Sixers are all happy to live with.
Funny how that happens when you trade for a basketball genius mid-season. Harden’s certainly doing some adaptation on the fly as well. The stakes are really high. If the Harris-Harden duo can keep this up, there may just be a long-term future for them both in this town. Plenty to build on, but a great postseason start so far for Number 12.