Tobias Harris is doing exactly what he promised for the Sixers

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Tobias Harris has been on the record and under the spotlight long enough that he understands all the right things to say.

He’ll certainly let you know if he’s frustrated after a bad loss, but the 29-year-old forward tends to consider his comments and avoid anything that could be perceived as remotely controversial or offensive. 

After shooting 5 for 18 from the floor over the Sixers’ first two games with James Harden, Harris emphasized unselfishness. 

“I’m not worried about my offensive points and production,” Harris said on March 1. “I think everybody has this notion of, ‘Oh, you’ve got to score this many points.’ Yeah, I get it, but at the end of the day I’m a winner and I incorporate into winning basketball. If that’s me taking 15 shots or if that’s me taking eight shots, it is what it is. As long as we’re winning basketball games, that’s what the name of the game is about. 

“A lot of people may not like to hear that, but that’s the predicament we’re in right now. We have a lot of firepower, especially with James and Joel (Embiid) on this team. So my goal is to be out here, be ready, and when shots are available and the opportunity is there, take advantage of it and do whatever I can for our group.”

In Harris’ 87 games as a Clipper under head coach Doc Rivers, he averaged 20.3 points and 15.7 field-goal attempts. In 24 regular-season games this year following Harden’s debut, he scored 14.3 points and took 11.9 field goals per contest.

Catch-and-shoot three-pointers have featured more prominently for Harris, who now rarely turns down open jumpers, chews up the shot clock with deliberate back-downs, or does anything that isn’t under Rivers’ “quick decisions” umbrella. He attempted 4.1 catch-and-shoot triples post-All-Star break, up from 2.7 before that. During the first quarter of the Sixers’ Game 3 overtime win Wednesday over the Raptors, Harris readied himself on the left wing and watched Pascal Siakam begin to pinch in after Tyrese Maxey rejected an Embiid ball screen. He then fired his sixth made catch-and-shoot three of the series. 

“You’ve got be patient with guys,” Rivers said following Game 2. “This guy has given everything for this team. He started out as a second option, then Tyrese got going. Then we bring James in. Tobias has had to make more changes than anybody on our team. And he keeps doing it without complaint, and it’s such a great example for what a good teammate should be. And he’s been doing it every night.”

The video above highlights Harris’ Game 3 performance, which included outstanding isolation defense on Siakam and a massive overtime stop on Gary Trent Jr., but Rivers wasn’t exaggerating about the Long Island native’s consistent approach.  

Harris played a deeply ineffective and irritating first six minutes of the third quarter during the Sixers’ regular-season finale against the Pistons. He failed to find any offensive success, got called for a charge, picked up a technical foul, and struggled against Braxton Key. The extent to which Harris cared was unusual, though. In a game that was very likely meaningless at that point (it indeed was), he didn’t want his effort to lapse.

“This is as focused as I’ve seen Tobias defensively ever — here and LA,” Rivers said Monday. “He’s been fantastic.”

Of course, Harris didn’t suddenly start valuing defense over the past few games or few weeks. Last postseason, he told NBC Sports Philadelphia that he worked on his lateral quickness leading into the 2020-21 campaign and “took a big, big leap” in that area. With Darius Garland rolling on Feb. 12, Harris asked to defend the All-Star guard in the third quarter and earned an “unsung hero” label from Rivers for his strong work. Rivers justifiably picked the identical description following Game 3. 

“I think the biggest adjustment was when we actually sat down and talked, and just had a real conversation. (Rivers) told me what he envisions me doing and how I can do it at a very high level,” Harris said after Game 2. “From there, I was basically at peace with that and never looked back from that time. 

“I understand keeping the group together. Making sure everybody’s in the right spirit and mind is big for us as a team, especially towards this run that we’re trying to do. So I have to be that person … that has my attitude and my stature in the right place. I just think all those things come together. And then just figuring it out. I think that was the biggest thing for the team the whole year ... figuring out ways that we can be successful. It’s what this game is about and it’s what life is about — adjusting and adapting.”

Attitude isn’t the only component of “winning basketball.” If Harris goes cold from long range, runs into frequent foul trouble, or can’t sustain this defensive level beyond Round 1, his team-first approach might wind up seeming relatively hollow. 

At the moment, though, it’s meaningful and encouraging for the Sixers that Harris’ actions have aligned so well with his words. 

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