CAMDEN, N.J. — Tobias Harris isn’t the first player you think of when talking about the Philadelphia 76ers.
All-Stars Joel Embiid and James Harden have received the lion’s share of the credit for making the 76ers into the championship contender we saw roll to a 121-101 win over the Nets in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Saturday.
Yet it’s players like Harris who could determine the 76ers' fate this postseason and help them avoid another embarrassing second-round exit. Because if the Half Hollow Hills West and Long Island Lutheran star hadn’t come up huge on both ends of the floor in Game 1, the Nets might have been able to steal a game.
It was Harris who hit big shots early in the game when Embiid and Harden got off to a slow start. Harris finished with 21 points and shot 9-for-14. On defense, it was Harris who was primarily responsible for shutting down Mikal Bridges in the second half. After scoring 23 points in the first half to keep the Nets in the game, Bridges was held to seven points in the second half and attempted only two shots.
“I’m just taking advantage of opportunities when they are presented to me,” Harris told Newsday after the game. “I want to do whatever I can do to help the group.”
Harris’ team-first attitude masks the fact that it hasn’t been easy for him to make sacrifices in his game since the 76ers traded Ben Simmons for Harden last season.
Harris had every reason to believe he was going to be one of the team’s primary offensive weapons and average 20 or more points when the 76ers acquired him from the Clippers in February 2019 and then gave him a max contract 27 games later. Instead, he’s been forced to settle for a role as a secondary scoring option behind Embiid and Harden. During the regular season, Harris scored 20 or more in only 18 of his 74 appearances.
“It’s been a big adjustment,” Torrel Harris, Tobias’ father and agent, said in a phone interview Saturday. “When he came from the Clippers, he was that guy. If he played on any other team, he’d probably be a 20-plus scorer and he’d probably be an All-Star player.
“But Tobias is all about winning. He’s been able to put his ego to the side and do whatever they ask him.”
Perhaps the most difficult thing about Tobias’ current role is what the 76ers want from him can change from night to night. Coach Doc Rivers admits what they have asked Harris to do is not an easy thing.
“Yeah [it’s tough], and it’s a per game thing,” Rivers said after the 76ers' practice Sunday. “Last night, he was very solid. I thought he played quick-decision throughout the game. I thought defensively he was very locked in. And that’s what we need.
“He’s not going to score 20 or more every night. There might be nights he scores more and nights he scores less. But his energy is very important for him especially on the defensive end. He did that the entire night.”
Harris has worked hard on his game in order to be the type of player the 76ers need. Once considered a subpar defensive player, Harris has improved to the point that the team can ask him to guard the best player on another team. Harris’ defense on Bridges was particularly impressive in the third quarter when he limited Bridges to one shot, a 12-foot jumper.
“I put the work in to be able to stay consistent and stay efficient throughout the whole season,” Harris said. “No matter how many shots I get one game or the next game, it’s just being ready for the moment. I’m just staying in the moment and being aggressive with all opportunities that come my way. That’s really all I’m trying to do.”
Stay ready, in the moment and try to win a championship.