NBA playoffs: How Sixers' Tobias Harris maintained self-belief

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From bloody bubble disappointment to Game 1 stardom, Harris has known who he is originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

As the Sixers prepared to play the Wizards in Round 1 of the playoffs, Tobias Harris brushed aside the idea that the bitter conclusion to the Sixers’ last season might be on his mind.

“I don’t think I ever really think about last season when we play,” he said. “We played this many games. You can’t compare, in my opinion, last season to this season. In general, I’m not a person who dwells on the past. I’m more of a present-moment type of individual, so all I can really focus on is where we’re at right now.”

In his last Zoom session of the 2019-20 campaign, Harris spoke to reporters after the Sixers’ Game 4 loss to the Celtics. He wore a bandage on the left side of his face. The Sixers had been swept, he’d taken a scary, bloody fall in the fourth quarter, and franchise upheaval was on the horizon. The firing of head coach Brett Brown would be the first major change. Doc Rivers eventually replaced him.

Rivers’ first game coaching Harris since their time together on the Clippers was a Sixers victory, though it was not Harris’ finest performance. He made his first three field goals, then misfired on his next 10 in a Dec. 23 win over Washington.

Rivers had no serious concerns. 

“He just missed shots,” he said that night. “I thought he was hesitant. Even that last drive where he made the free throws, I thought that should’ve been a dunk. We’ll watch the film, we’ll get him uncaged. He’ll be fine.”

Harris was fine and then some in the Sixers’ Game 1 win Sunday, scoring 28 points in the first half and a playoff career-high 37 in the game. With Joel Embiid sidelined by foul trouble for the final 7:07 of the opening half, the Sixers needed Harris to be great, and he was. 

He might not be inclined to focus on the past, but Harris had been reminded of that opening-night game when he geared up to play the Wizards in the postseason. 

“When we knew we were playing Washington, I was looking at old highlights of when we played Washington the first game of the year,” he said. “And I remember going home from the game and I didn’t have my best shooting night, but I said to myself, ‘In this offense — obviously a brand-new group pretty much, brand-new coaching staff — I’m going to get the looks that I need to get night in and night out. And I’ll just be patient. Tonight I missed them. It’s not the end of the world. Can’t really focus on what everyone else has to say.’

“I knew who I was at that time and I knew that if I continued to get those shots over and over again, I was going to make most of them. And to fast forward to where we’re at now, it’s just being able to have those same type of looks and be great at them. Now I know my spots. I know the guys around me, where they like to play. We’ve built that type of chemistry. I think it’s a really good balance from our first game to where we’re at now, just the evolution of playing in this type of system and with the role that I have.”

Nobody would describe Harris’ Game 1 performance as hesitant. When a ball screen did its job, he exploded toward the hoop. When 6-foot-1 Raul Neto switched onto him, he was eager to attack. When he reached the rim, he wasn’t bothered by whichever Wizards big man stood in his way. 

Harris gave a postgame shutout to his “two sparring partners,” Rayjon Tucker and Paul Reed, players who have mostly appeared in garbage time this season. The 6-foot-3 Tucker is an explosive leaper with a “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of play. Reed, a rookie power forward, seems to savor any and all competition.

“We just work before and after practice on 1-on-1s and those type of situations,” Harris said. “To be able to go up against them … they’re both guys that like to get physical. Those have been my sparring guys that I’ve been working with. We have a lot of fun. We talk a lot of junk when we play in those type of games. But that’s really where I’ve been trying to get better at — on the low block in the post and against smaller guys.”

After a 37-point afternoon, it’s easy to believe that Harris’ self-belief never wavered. 

Only he fully understands the path from the Sixers’ failure in the NBA bubble to his Game 1 triumph, though. And he’s thinking about the road ahead.

“For me, I know who I am, I know my game, I know my ability,” Harris said. “Maybe that has been criticized in the past in different situations and whatnot. I know one thing I bring to this team night in and night out, and that’s somebody that is going to play to win. That’s where I hang my hat every single night. That gives me clarity, to go into these games and have the focus to do whatever’s necessary for the team to win. I know people who watch, people who see, my teammates, they respect that. They understand that. You have nights like this and you get into those type of rhythms with the work that’s put in.

“I will say the past two or three months, I’ve been preparing for this type of moment, preparing myself. And just telling the team, as well: ‘This is the nitty gritty. This is the playoffs.’ … For us as a group, it’s really to stay in it mentally through the highs and lows of the game, and to be really be locked in on the play that’s happening right now. So that’s just the message that I continue to tell the team. I think that’s going to help us for where we’re trying to go.”