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Tobias Harris is defending better than ever against Raptors

Harris is stepping up at both ends of the floor in his new role for the Sixers.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Tobias Harris has upped his game for a while now. Over the last six weeks of the regular season, he grew more comfortable in his new offensive role next to James Harden and started giving the Sixers exactly what they need from him. Harris reduced his on-ball creation, increased his decisiveness moving the ball and driving to the rim, and started firing more threes without hesitation.

He’s been excellent to start the playoffs as well, playing a valuable role in the Sixers’ 3-0 series lead over the Raptors. But it’s not just Harris’s improved offensive approach that stands out.

He’s been playing fantastic defense, too.

To go along with his average of 19 points on red-hot 58.8/63.6/83.3 shooting splits through three games against the Raptors, Harris has averaged 9.3 rebounds, 0.7 steals, 1.7 blocks and 3.7 deflections (eighth in the NBA in the playoffs). While the basic numbers reiterating Harris’s activity on the boards and help protecting the paint are great, he’s done so much to help anchor the Sixers’ perimeter defense against the assignments he’s been required to take on.

A vital part of Harris’s defensive role has been competing with Pascal Siakam. While others have chipped in, and Joel Embiid has been playing some stellar defense himself to protect the rim and switch onto Siakam at times, Harris has helped lead the way in containing Toronto’s top forward to 18.7 points per game on 40.7 percent shooting. This includes a quiet 12-point night on 6-of-16 shooting in Game 3, as Harris continued to make Siakam’s life tough as the Sixers fought for a scrappy win.

Siakam may be the longer and faster player, but Harris is defending him exactly as he needs to. Harris is staying physical yet disciplined, using his strength to hold off Siakam on short face-up moves and post-ups, denying passes and hand-offs at the arc to slow down possessions where possible, and sliding his feet well against drives:

Through the first three games of this series, Siakam has shot just 7-of-18 (38.9 percent) when defended by Harris, per NBA.com. Matchup numbers can be misleading (they don’t always accurately capture who was the closest defender or responsible for the outcome of a shot/possession), but this certainly matches the eye test of how well Harris has been defending Siakam when reviewing the film.

“Just making his looks hard,” Harris said after Game 3 when asked about what he’s done against Siakam in the series so far. As the Sixers came back in the second half of Game 3, Siakam was held to 0-of-4 shooting and zero points over the final two quarters. “He’s a tough matchup just with his size. But, I try to use my quickness laterally and my strength to make him make second moves out there. So, just really reading some of the things that he wants to do. And make every look that he gets a tough look. They’re playing like that. They run a lot of sets through him. He’s a good player getting downhill as well, so just trying to beat him to the spot and making him take tough twos.”

Harris’s role has changed significantly since Harden joined the team, resulting in the adjustments to his shot profile and an overall reduction in the amount he needs to handle the ball and shoot. His usage percentage has dropped from 23.2 before the All-Star break to 17.8 afterwards (since Harden made his debut), putting Harris fourth behind Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey in this span.

Now, with Harden around to help lead the team, Harris is focused on shifting the energy he’s saving on offense to his defense.

“I definitely have more energy to go out and guard somebody and pick them up and exploit my energy on that end,” Harris said after Game 2 when discussing his role with Harden onboard. “... 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 the defensive end. And I kind of just embraced that challenge since then vs. all the guys we have played against, that I was matched up against. So, it’s just trying to figure out different ways to be impactful for the group and help us play winning basketball.”

Harris’s rebounding can’t be overlooked either. One of the main weapons the Sixers needed to handle heading into this series was Toronto’s offensive rebounding — something made more concerning due to the Sixers’ struggles on the defensive glass all year. The Raptors used their wealth of energy, length and athleticism to rank second in offensive rebounds per game (13.4) in the regular season. In the playoffs, despite there being a few offensive boards that have been a bit too easy for them to grab, the Sixers have largely rebounded well and limited the Raptors’ offensive rebounds below their season average (9.7 a night through three games). Boxing out and bringing energy on the glass has been a point of emphasis for Philly, and Harris has played a key part in it.

He’s also been alert off the ball and holding his own with switches onto guards and forwards. He’s remaining as agile as he can in a low stance and staying active at the perimeter.

Perhaps Harris’s best defensive possession of the series yet (and as good as anything you’ve probably seen from him since he joined the Sixers) was the following sequence in overtime. Right as the Sixers desperately needed a stop. Harris starts by holding Siakam away from the paint, helping to prompt Siakam to go screen for Gary Trent Jr. instead. From there, Harris switches onto Trent Jr., smothers his attempted drive, hangs all over him on a brief retreat, and strips the ball away:

“First, it’s just knowing an opponent, knowing some of the qualities and the tendencies that they have on the floor of what they want,” Harris said after Game 2 when asked about what’s contributed to his recent defensive impact. “And then for me, it’s just embracing the challenge. When I came into the league that was the biggest knock on me, that 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, slide, to be better laterally, so any time I’m on the floor having that opportunity to embrace going up and challenging somebody and making their life hard out there, I try to take advantage of it. For me, it’s special to kind of have people looking at me now as a defender.”

For the new-look Sixers, Harris has been asked to adjust his approach and star in a different role. To end the regular season and now in the playoffs, he’s doing that admirably. His elevated defense against Toronto is an important part of it.

And when you consider the postseason stage, level of opponent, and Harris’s play at both ends of the floor, it might be the best three-game stretch of his career with the Sixers yet.