As the Sixers begin their second-round playoff series against the Heat without Joel Embiid, what they do with their center rotation is one of the main stories to monitor. After a 106-92 loss in Game 1, Doc Rivers’ decision to stand by DeAndre Jordan as his new starter and top center with 17 minutes has felt like the main point of Sixers conversation. It went about as horribly as you’d expect, with Jordan bringing minimal effort, snagging only two rebounds, and playing poor defense at the perimeter and by the basket.
There were some positives for Philly in Game 1, though. For instance, the Sixers had a positive net rating in the 31 minutes Jordan was off the floor, and had some success going with Paul Reed and smaller lineups. They used spells of zone defense to effectively limit Miami’s attempts in the paint, and earned a 51-50 lead at halftime.
Plus, Tobias Harris continues to be a standout playoff performer.
In just under 37 minutes, Harris scored a team-high 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting and grabbed six rebounds. The efficiency is great, of course, and it’s not just because Harris got hot with his jumpers. He was attacking in the ways he needs to against this Heat team.
The Heat switch frequently, and a fundamental part of Harris’s attack on Monday was using that against them to go after mismatches against smaller defenders, like Caleb Martin and especially Tyler Herro. Harris used ball screens to find the switches he wanted, then used his strength well to drive inside against weaker opponents. And even when he didn’t get all the way to the rim, he was able to power his way closer to the basket for short pull-ups rather than long mid-range attempts.
When Harris discussed what worked well for him offensively after the game, he quickly highlighted using switches against guards. “Just attacking some of the smaller guards that they have, making them switch and then getting downhill, so that was working,” Harris told reporters. “And just being aggressive in those spots. A lot of those baskets came from stops that we got on the other end, so just letting our defense fuel our offense, pushing the pace. So that’s something we can go to in the next game if it’s there, but at the same time when we did get those stops we were really good in getting the ball out and getting out in transition.”
Along with a couple of run-outs in transition and a pull-up three to bail the Sixers out of an unproductive possession in the third quarter, Harris provided decisive, well-rounded scoring. He can’t always shoot over 60 percent from the floor, but he can take the right kinds of shots and attack favorable more matchups. Finding a sustainable approach is the key, and Harris got off to a pretty ideal start in Game 1.
On defense, Harris continued to bring the elevated awareness and intensity that made him so valuable on that end of the floor in round one against Toronto. Harris has transformed himself as a defender in recent weeks, fully embracing a new role for the new-look Sixers with James Harden. In addition to Harris trading some on-ball creation for more quick-trigger threes and decisive attacks off the dribble on offense, a vital part of his altered approach has been complete buy-in on defense.
I wrote about this in more depth a couple of weeks ago, so you can read here for more on Harris’s own explanation as to what’s led to his evolution as a defender, but in Game 1 against Miami it was more of the same. He didn’t let up at all.
The Heat ranked second in the NBA in dribble hand-off frequency this season and fourth in efficiency, using strong screens from bigs like Bam Adebayo to create space for their sharpshooters, or room for ball-handlers like Kyle Lowry and Herro to create. It’s an important part of their offense, and Harris was active in denying passes at the arc to play his part in slowing down some of the Heat’s go-to hand-off actions.
He also closed out to shooters with energy, stayed physical against drives, deterred some of Jimmy Butler’s attempts to get to the rim, and was generally a rock-solid presence in man or zone coverage.
If the Sixers can replicate some of what worked well in the first half of Game 1 and cut the disastrous minutes of DeAndre Jordan (Doc Rivers’ stubbornness may make this impossible, but the point still stands), maybe they can steal a game on the road before they return to Philadelphia for Game 3 and Embiid potentially returns. Simply having better shooting nights from James Harden (who will need to be aggressive) and Tyrese Maxey alone would also be a big swing factor in keeping Game 2 close. The Heat won’t be at full strength again either, as Kyle Lowry is out again due to his hamstring injury.
One thing is for sure, though. Harris has been the Sixers’ most consistent player of these playoffs so far. If he keeps thriving at both ends of the floor, as he has for weeks now, Philly definitely has a better chance to keep this series competitive.