With Joel Embiid out indefinitely, the Sixers have to drastically shorten their notion of time. They cannot worry about or look forward to a potential Joel Embiid playoff return, despite how hopeful they might be.
There’s no time to reflect on the past or what might have been had the Sixers found a way to keep both Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in that fateful summer of 2019. Philadelphia just needs to steal one of the first two games down in South Beach next week. Then they can at least check in on Embiid’s status when the second-round series returns to Broad St.
The Sixers made two blockbuster trades back in 2019, of course. They first brought in Butler in Nov. 2018. A couple months after that they landed Harris. It was the latter they wound up building around, come June of 2019. Now Jimmy Butler is a class-A villain in Philly. Harris has been known (although not always fondly) as the good guy.
But the Long Island native was arguably the Sixers most pleasant surprise and consistent player in round one.
“Tobias was amazing,” head coach Doc Rivers told reporters up in Toronto. “Numbers-wise, you’ll look at Tyrese [Maxey] and James [Harden] and Joel, but Tobias might’ve been the most valuable guy in this series. Guarding [Pascal] Siakam is not easy and he did it throughout and he did it with vigor and just great fight.”
High praise from the head coach.
Harris stepped up his game just at the right time for the Sixers. The team’s vocal and emotional leader, its resident ironman, broke out in the knick of time. It was not smooth at first. Harris finished with under 15 points in 10 of his first 20 games following The Beard’s team debut.
But what we’ve seen over the last few weeks is simply a player “in flow.” He’s not overthinking. He’s not dribbling too much. His jumper is dropping. He’s been a beast in transition. His efficiency has benefitted. He’s been a force defensively. It’s all been very surprising and awesome.
He has a much bigger challenge in front of him now. Harris, along with Tyrese Maxey and James Harden are going to have to wrestle home court away from Butler’s Heat without the dude who would have been the best player in the whole series (if not the entire playoffs).
“Obviously tough news to take,” Harris said at practice Saturday regarding Joel’s fractured orbital bone, the third of his career dating back to his Kansas. “As a group we want him to get healthy, better, and whenever that is, we’ll be ready. But at the end of the day for us it’s next man up mentality and just being locked in with the game plan,” Harris said.
Next man up is the ultimate sports cliche. It’s often the easiest one to roll your eyes at.
But at least in this town, there’s some precedent for miracle runs. Just ask Nick Foles. Not that the Sixers will rely on Paul Reed or even a center by committee approach to fill that gap. They’ll lean instead on their perimeter stars.
The Sixers played the majority of their year with a max-salaried, Ben Simmons-size void in their lineup. It was the way they banded together under adversity that first caught the eye of Harden, who presumably (we should know for sure by July) saw a better fit for himself long-term in Philly than in Brooklyn.
No doubt, this Sixers current culture, the one they’re relying on now, represented greener pastures than Kyrie Irving’s ineligible status in Brooklyn did last winter. Perhaps it beckoned to him: hey James, you can do better, those guys in red, white, and blue, they’re are all in.
“We just got to figure it out,” Harris continued. “This has been a resilient group all year so nothing has changed in that regard. We’ll prepare the same way. And we’ll wait for the Big Fella to get whatever he needs to get to back to where he needs to be.”
The whole Ben Simmons experience made this team a much more tightly knit group. And so next man up means a tiny bit more coming from this bunch than when we usually hear that hackneyed phrase uttered.
Pivot to an uptempo approach
But how do they steal one without The Process? They can barely even survive eight minutes when dude takes a quick rest, now you want to beat the East’s top seed without Joel freakin Embiid?! On Saturday at practice, Harris pointed to a change of tempo as the key.
“Continuing to push the pace, continuing to execute offensively, using our defense,” Harris said. “It’s just gonna be added efforts from different guys, different opportunities. But overall we kind of know that in the last series what worked for us is just us continuing to move the basketball.”
Through six playoff games big Number 12 is averaging 17.8 points. 9.5 rebounds, 3 dimes, 1.2 blocks, on scorching .53/.47/.83 shooting splits. He helped force misses, and then he capitalized, hurting Toronto early in the shot clock, occasionally with a filthy combo of moves:
In and out, behind the back, hesi, cross, layup. I swear Tobias Harris improved his handle 37% over last few weeks somehow. pic.twitter.com/kbYzmsgTyD— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 28, 2022
“We’ll definitely play a little bit of a different style because we’re missing those types of post ups and whatnot, but that just means there’s gonna be probably added pick-and-roll play... so we can still be real efficient,” the 11-year vet added.
Every team remaining wants to play fast. But it’s hard to run after a made basket. They’ll need stops. So Harris, recently edging out Matisse Thybulle (demoted in part because of vaccination status) for the toughest defensive assignment job, will need to force Jimmy Butler to his left, dare JB to take tough pull ups, and hold his own guarding post-ups. Because if the Sixers need to help Harris too much, Jimmy will pick them apart as a passer. Harris is going to have to avoid cheap fouls in order to maximize his time on the floor.
“Obviously his ability to impact the game with the basketball, without the basketball, he gets to the free throw line at a high rate, plays with a lot of energy,” Harris explained of his former teammate. “Obviously I’ve played with Jimmy so I’m familiar with his style of play as well.”
Doc Rivers made clear though, that they may also rely on Harris to stop Miami’s other stars too, if they’re the ones on a heater.
“It really allows us to put Tobias on the best player,” Rivers said, when asked about Tobi’s souped up point of attack dependability. “So he’ll do that a lot in this series whether it be Jimmy, Kyle Lowry or Bam, Tobias will probably guard all three at some point.”
Rivers was asked at practice if this was something he saw when he coached Harris on the Clippers, a wing he could serviceably deploy on another team’s superstar. Doc gave an honest reply. “No, defense with Tobias in L.A., he’s a different human being for sure.”
As our Joe_DiProsperos noted, Rivers said the team will look to deploy a center by committee approach. And one of those centers might even be the 6-8, 226 LBS former Volunteer.
Here is 15 seconds of Tobias Harris giving Towns the absolute BUSINESS on defense pic.twitter.com/75Nr0Lt2xS— Thiago (@ThiagoPHL) April 4, 2021
“They do one lineup where they put [P.J.] Tucker in as five, and then they do another one where they’re pretty small,” Rivers explained. “I don’t know if I want to [deploy Harris at the five] that honestly, but we’re willing to do whatever we need to do.”
Tobias Harris has been playing his absolute best defense against the Raptors. He's been great overall this series, and has really stepped up at that end of the floor as well.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) April 21, 2022
This was a huge stop from him in overtime last night: pic.twitter.com/H29YCcb66d
If Harris can maintain the level of solid defense he exhibited in round vs. Spicy P (perhaps a new Philly villain in his own right) the Sixers may be able to get stops and push the tempo vs. Butler and the Heat. Then relying on their wings, Harris’, Harden’s, Maxey’s, Danny Green’s combined scoring prowess, the Sixers will look to pour it on and target-hunt.
They can’t afford to worry about Embiid and make predictions about a return that may never come. They just need the good guy to slow down the villain and steal one of the first two games in a hostile environment. Then they can figure the rest out later.