What a wild ride it’s been for Tobias Harris in Philadelphia. If you can believe it, it’s been over four years since he arrived from the Los Angeles Clippers in a trade deadline blockbuster.
Before his time with the Sixers, he had little playoff experience. In fact, the least you can have if your team makes the playoffs. The 2015-16 Detroit Pistons were swept by LeBron James and the eventual champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
His playoff record with the Sixers and contract status haven’t always endeared him to fans, but Saturday’s 96-88 win over the Nets in Game 4 could be a sign that Harris has exorcised his postseason demons.
With Joel Embiid out with a right knee sprain and James Harden and Tyrese Maxey both struggling, it was Harris that kept the Sixers in the game. It was only fitting then that Harris was the one that sealed the victory and series sweep.
“He played his tail off,” Maxey told reporters in Brooklyn. “I say it every time: He’s a pro’s pro, and he’s always there when we need him. And tonight, we needed him. Guys couldn’t get it going. I was missing layups, James was missing layups — easy shots. [De’Anthony] Melton was joking around about how he couldn’t make a shot in the first half. But Tobias kept us afloat and he closed the game out for us.”
Harris finished the night with 25 and 12 rebounds. He shot 11 of 19 from the field and 2 of 4 from three — including a dagger corner triple with 1:36 remaining.
And it felt like several of Harris’ buckets were timely. Without Embiid, the pristine looks weren’t coming as easily. Harden was routinely getting past his defender but his woes inside the arc reached their apex. Maxey, who dropped 33 in Game 2 and was electric in the fourth quarter of Game 3, finished the day 6 of 20.
Despite scoring just 40 points in the first half, the Sixers were down eight. You could sense they still had a good chance to win. They took the lead on a Harris fadeaway midway through the third, their first advantage since the they were up 2-0. They won the quarter 26-15.
Harris isn’t even sure how they managed to stay in the game, but he could sense they were never out of it.
“To be honest, I don’t even remember [how we came back],” Harris said with a laugh. “There were moments in the game where timeouts were really rocky. But when you look, it was like, ‘OK, we’re down six or seven or eight.’ It was like, ‘Look, let’s just figure out a way to get three stops in a row and get out and try to get some easy baskets.’ I thought we were able to do that and get some buckets to fall for us.”
Harris would likely be the first to tell you he wishes his playoff track record were better.
His 7-of-23 performance in a pivotal Game 5 against the Raptors in 2019 stands out. Harris struggled mightily (along with every Sixer not named Joel Embiid) as the Sixers were swept out of the bubble by the Celtics. Harris was excellent against the Wizards and in the first four games of the Hawks series in 2021, but shot just 34.5 percent over the final three games against Atlanta — including 8 of 24 in Game 7.
With that said, lost in the disappointment of the team’s flameout against the Heat, Harris was pretty damn good for the Sixers in the 2022 postseason. His numbers were strong for a player that’s often the third or fourth option: 16.9 points per game on 50/38.6/86.4 shooting splits.
Though it wasn’t the desired outcome, Harris had two performances similar to the one he provided on Saturday. With Embiid out for Games 1 and 2 in Miami, Harris helped carry the offense, scoring 27 and 21 points, respectively.
A similar effort but in a closeout game? That’s easily one of his finest playoff performances.
“Yeah, I would say so,” Harris said. “I don’t really look at it to that extent. I’m just really looking at every night is a night to go out there and take advantage of whatever opportunities are there for me. That’s how I’ve always played, and I thought tonight I was able to do that.”
A consummate teammate, Harris quickly deflected the conversation back to the team’s efforts to win without their best player.
“I think the greatest thing about tonight — forget the stats and whatnot — is to be able to get a victory and close this out. With Joel out and a team like that … a lot of teams down 0-3, they just fall over, but that’s a young, hungry team that wants to win and they’ve got a lot of guys that can get hot. ... So to get the victory, that was the most pleasing thing for me.”
This deep into the story and we didn’t even touch on Harris’ defense.
Harris was tasked with guarding Mikal Bridges, a budding star that was given the keys to the Nets’ offense. If you were to ask Rivers, he would tell you that Harris would’ve never gotten an assignment like that back in the Clippers days.
But this version of Harris is different. After a hot start, Bridges struggled throughout the rest of the series, including going just 6 of 18 in the decisive Game 4.
In all four games, Harris got it done on both ends.
“He was great, man,” Harden said, “just attacking around the basket, finishing around the rim, knocking threes down, defensively, being great. It’s a special performance for him in a close-out (game) and we needed it.”
Harris is now a seasoned playoff veteran with 48 career games under his belt. Maybe with that experience, he’s learned a thing or two.
Maybe, just maybe, this could be the year of Playoff Tobi.