This regular season has been a roller coaster ride for gauging fan sentiment around Tobias Harris. The 31-year-old forward started the season very well, then hit a huge rough patch, before going back to playing at a high level recently. Over his past 11 games, Harris has scored 20 or more points eight times, including three games of 32 points or more, with the first back-to-back 30-plus-point games of his 13-year NBA career last week. Fans that were ready to ship him to the moon for a heavily-protected second-round pick are probably coming to the realization that nobody who is available in a trade is likely to help the Sixers in their quest for a championship as much as Tobias Harris this season.
Tuesday night’s 126-121 win over Denver was a great example of everything Tobias can bring to the table. He was highly efficient in playing alongside the team’s top two scorers, Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, scoring 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the floor and a perfect 6-of-6 mark from the free throw line, while displaying his defensive versatility in defensive schemes Nick Nurse cooked up to try and slow down Nikola Jokic and the defending NBA champions. After the victory, Nurse discussed Harris’ impact on the game:
“Tobias had the big stretch when we were struggling, which was huge. They got the little lead and we didn’t have a whole lot going offensively. He scored about three buckets in a row, and they were all tough buckets. That was huge. And I thought he made them pay early in the second half, too, when they were doubling Joel at the high post; he knocked down a couple of shots. That’s pretty good, to get 24 on 10 shots.”
That stretch Nurse mentioned came at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The Nuggets entered the period up by five following a big 15-2 run to end the third and Embiid was on the bench for his customary early-fourth quarter break. Harris was the only Sixer to score for the first four and half minutes of the period, tallying eight points on three buckets and a pair of free throws. Thanks to that surge and a big four-point play from Marcus Morris Sr. shortly thereafter, the Sixers were back to tied with Denver when Embiid returned to live game action, allowing the big man to bring things home.
Maxey was on the floor with Tobias during that stretch and mentioned postgame the importance of his veteran teammate’s contributions:
“He was big. Especially in the fourth, he was big. We couldn’t get any offense going and he made some tough shots. I think he made three baskets for us, and he made two big free throws. He was good. He was great defensively, too.”
Embiid echoed that sentiment in his post-game availability:
“We had a few lapses, especially in that third quarter when they made their run. And nobody is talking about him, but Tobias was huge again, as he’s been the last couple of games — all season, really. He was huge, especially to start that fourth quarter. He had a key couple of baskets that kept us in, and we just closed it out.”
Tobias himself recognized the crucial nature of that stretch of the game, while also making sure to share the credit with his teammates:
“The start of the fourth, we knew we needed a spark there. We knew we needed some stops and to get the lead back. … Coming out of the timeout, we just knew, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get some stops, and we’ve got to get some buckets on the other end.’ We were able to do it, going at some mismatches out there, being able to create some space and get some good looks off. And to get some stops as well was huge for us. I thought Paul Reed, his energy was really big in that little stretch. The and-one three from Marcus Morris was huge for us. Those types of plays change the momentum, change the energy, and they were big for us to get this victory.”
Defensively, Tobias was tasked for stints with center Nikola Jokic, who stands a good four inches taller and some 50 pounds heavier than Harris. The strategy of having Harris on the center and allowing Embiid to roam is something that worked well the other night against Domantas Sabonis and the Kings and has been used in the past by the Sixers to good effect (the old Toronto playoff series comes to mind with Harris on Marc Gasol). I wouldn’t say it was a rousing success against Denver, as Jokic crushed the offensive glass against both Tobias and others, but it was at least yet another look to keep the Nuggets from getting too comfortable and Nikola was held well below his average with only three assists. Tobias talked through the different defensive alignments after the game, including his Jokic assignment:
“I think it worked. (Laughs.) We kind of explored it a little bit vs. Sacramento, with Sabonis. I think for somebody that’s as good of a passer as he is and kind of plays the center-point for them … just to make some of those looks a little bit more difficult, pick him up full court. I think that kind of disrupted some of their offensive rhythm, and it’s a look they probably haven’t seen too much throughout the year. I thought it was a great game plan for us. We went back and forth a lot, too, to show different reads, different looks. If they went to the timeout to draw something up, we’d switch it up — go 1-3-1 zone, go 2-3. We even threw a box-and-out out there. That was crazy. (Laughs.) I’m not going to lie, I ain’t played box-and-one ever, so at one point I didn’t know what I was doing out there. But we made it work, so it was good for us.”
Harris later added more on the importance of varying defensive looks:
“(Jokic is) such a great passer out there, and that’s the big thing. Early in the game, we were saying, ‘Don’t send the double team too early, because he’s looking to make those passes.’ We did a good job of showing it from time to time and then switching it up. Give them different types of looks that they have to make adjustments to. We even went to the 2-3 zone for a period of time. Those looks throughout the game can change their mentality … so I thought that was important for us.”
Efficient complementary scoring and defensive versatility are exactly what the Sixers need next to Embiid and Maxey. While there are certainly frustrating qualities to Harris’ game that spring up from time to time, all the good features of what he brings to the table were present against Denver. Sixers fans will hope that those continue to be front and center as the organization likely plans to keep the long-time Sixer around past the trade deadline and into the team’s playoff run.