It’s almost like a yearly tradition to see Tobias Harris’ name pop up in trade rumors starting in July before percolating ahead of the deadline.
But every year, the Sixers have held on to the veteran forward, who is now in the fifth and final year of a near-max contract.
The 31-year-old bounced around the NBA before his career even truly began. He was part of a draft night trade and then was moved again during his rookie year. The trade that brought him to Philadelphia in February of 2019 brought with it some welcomed stability — though his Sixers tenure has been volatile.
But none of that mattered Friday night as Harris broke out of a recent funk to lead the Sixers to a 121-111 win over the Toronto Raptors. The veteran forward had a season-high 33 points to go along with eight rebounds, a season-high seven assists and season-high five made threes.
The Sixers were scuffling early as the Raptors made it a priority to slow down the NBA’s most lethal scoring duo in Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey. That gave Harris opportunities and one of the team’s leaders implored his teammates to step up.
“I mean, Tobias Harris, he hit a couple of shots. I just remember him coming to the bench and saying, ‘We’ve got to pick it up.’” Maxey said postgame. “He’s a pro’s pro, man. There’s games where he doesn’t get as many shots as he probably should, but he never complains. He goes out there, defends his tail off every single night.”
Much like when James Harden first arrived in Philly. Harris seemed to struggle to find his touches. Embiid has been otherworldly and Maxey is enjoying a meteoric rise. The supporting cast has really had to simply let the pair cook while they’re destroying NBA defenses.
After a blistering start to the season, Harris scuffled coming into Friday night’s game. Over the previous 13 contests, Harris averaged just 11.9 points. He was hyper efficient early in the year, but was shooting just 44.4% from the field and below 30% from three.
But Toronto made it their mission to slow down the Embiid and Maxey pick-and-roll. Embiid had just two points in the first quarter and the Sixers found themselves in a nine-point hole heading into the second. Then Harris dropped 13 in the quarter, giving the Sixers a three-point halftime lead.
Harris hadn’t made four threes in a game this season. He reached that mark at halftime, pouring in 24 points.
“I thought early on, I was just taking what was presented,” Harris said. “I was able to hit my first three and get out in transition, use defense to fuel transition offense. And then from there, just getting a rhythm in the offense of catching and shooting, being able to put it up and live with the result.
“Outside of that, I really just took advantage of all the opportunities that were there.”
Harris is a cerebral person. It seems like his brain can be his own worst enemy. He prides himself on being an efficient player, but sometimes the best play for the team is him firing up a shot — especially while the defense is so focused on Embiid and Maxey.
“He was great,” Embiid said. “I told him he was decisive. He wasn’t thinking about it. He either had a shot or he drove — quick decisions. When they collapsed, he made the right play. That’s how he’s got to play every night.”
This version of Harris — firing when open, moving the ball when he’s not, attacking driving lanes when they’re there, thriving in the open court — is the one the Sixers really need. The Raptors will not be the last team that devotes its defense to taking away the Embiid-Maxey two-man game.
Sometimes, a player like Harris just needs a small nudge.
“I thought Joel did a great job of pushing me and getting me in a lot of actions with him tonight,” Harris said. “And he was really emphasizing and telling me, ‘Just let it go. If I come for pick-and-roll with you, let it fly, however they play their coverage.’ Being out there with him and Tyrese, when we get that basketball moving from side to side and we get some actions out there, it helps us as a whole group. We were able to find a good balance in the offense there in the first half, and then all the way throughout the game.”
All three of Harris, Embiid and Maxey finished the game with over 30 points. They’re only the second trio in franchise history to do so. The only other time it happened was in 1961.
The reality is the Sixers’ offense will go as far as Embiid and Maxey will take it. If they can drop 86 combined points against the top-rated defense in the NBA, chances are they can do it against most teams.
“Again, I keep using the same analogy: It’s 1st-and-10, and we can run it up the middle for 8 or 12 yards. We’re going to probably keep doing that,” Nick Nurse said. “And that pick-and-roll, it’s just hard to guard. And then tonight (Toronto) decided to get in there and take it away, really pull everybody over … so the ball had to go other places.
“And that’s good for us. It’s really good for us … to see other schemes, other things to do, and what we can learn when we see ‘em.”
Teams will do what Toronto did to slow it down. Harris and the rest of the Sixers will have to be ready when they do. As we saw before this ridiculous run from Embiid, the Sixers are really hard to stop when they’re playing team basketball.
Say what you want about Harris, and maybe he won’t be a Sixer beyond Feb. 8, but his teammates and coaches always seem to go to bat for him.
“I just remember one story he told me on the bus [as a rookie],” Maxey said. “I wasn’t playing that much and I was kind of upset, kind of down on myself. And he kind of just pulled me to the back of the bus, and he had a 15, 20-minute conversation with me about how, ‘Your time will come. Be patient.’ And it did. I just really do appreciate him. He knows that anything I can do for him — which is not a lot — but I always try to do that for him. I try to keep his energy high, because he always keeps mine high. I appreciate him.”