MIAMI — If nothing else comes from the 76ers’ 2022 playoff misadventures, at least they’ve had Tobias Harris justify their decision.

After the 2019 season ended in Canadian quadruple-doink ignominy, the Sixers had to choose between max-salary veterans Jimmy Butler, an abrasive alpha, and Tobias Harris, a sensitive beta. Other issues influenced the decision — Butler’s bristly relationship with then-coach Brett Brown, how Butler’s presence would impact young point guard Ben Simmons, Butler’s age (he’s three years older than Harris) — but, in the end, the Sixers chose Option B.

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Butler since has run the Heat to the NBA Finals in 2020, and he took them to the top of the Eastern Conference this year. But Harris was the best player on the court in Game 1 of their semifinal matchup Monday. He’s been the best player on the court for most of the Sixers’ seven postseason games.

It’s happened just in time.

Sixers MVP Joel Embiid is injured: concussed, fractured, torn, and absent at least through Game 2 on Wednesday.

James Harden is withering into dotage.

Tyrese Maxey, at this moment, is a defensive liability and, on offense, a product of his peers.

Tobias Harris? He’s turned into The Truth.

Simply the best

“This is the best version I’ve ever seen of him,” said Doc Rivers, who coached Harris for 87 games with the Clippers before they reconnected in Philadelphia last season. “Every night, he guards the best guy. He’s running the floor. He’s setting picks. And he’s also demanding everyone play right, with his voice.

“It’s been great, and we need it now. He’s just going to have to keep doing it.”

Often guarded by Harris, Butler scored 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting. Butler averaged 30.5 points in the opening round against the Hawks. As Maxey’s role diminishes, the Sixers have no other answer for Butler beyond Harris.

» READ MORE: Doc Rivers has no answers, and maybe that’s because there aren’t any

“He’s been taking it up, intensity-wise. I think it starts on the defensive end for him,” teammate Danny Green said. “I think that’s getting him more engaged. He’s attacking. He’s pushing. He knows we’re going to need him more with Joel being out. One of the very few guys who played well for us [Monday night].”

It was a low bar, considering they lost, 106-92, and hardly anyone else showed up.

Harris scored 27 points on 11-for-18 shooting. It’s the most he’s scored since the Sixers traded inactive point guard Ben Simmons for Harden at the Feb. 10 deadline. Rivers said Tuesday that, among the Sixers’ starters, only Harris (Harris?!) matched the Heat’s physicality.

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Yes, Harris knew the Sixers needed it. At 6-foot-8, he’s a scoring power forward who averaged 19.4 points per game in the previous four seasons, usually as scoring option No. 1 or No. 2. He managed just 14.1 points after Harden arrived, which amplified the usage of Maxey as a scorer, but he used the time to polish aspects of his game he’d seldom used before: catch-and-shoot threes, slashing, spot-up shots, running the break more often.

He averaged 17.8 points in the first-round series win over the Raptors, whose waves of hybrid forwards were better built to stifle Harris. In this round, he can take advantage of the Heat personnel.

“Just attacking the smaller guards that they have, making them switch and getting downhill and just being aggressive,” Harris said.

A work of art

That explains the offense. The defense — well, that’s more of a mindset. Can you overstate it? It felt like Harris’s game, and especially his defense against Raptors star Pascal Siakam, turned that series as much as Embiid’s 26.2 points and 11.3 rebounds.

Harris, a max salary, $36 million player, understood that his personal stats mattered less than letting Harden, Embiid, and Maxey form an attack he could complement — a rare trait in a me-first sport.

» READ MORE: Sixers’ Paul Reed on the Heat: ‘Honestly, I think we can definitely beat this team.’

“Tobias spent a lot of time wondering, ‘What can I do for the team?’” teammate Georges Niang said. “That’s very unique in professional sports because most people are wondering, ‘What can I do for myself to get to the next contract, and make myself look better?’ He’s been the most valuable piece that fit into James, Joel, and Tyrese.”


“I don’t even know how to explain it,” said Rivers, who’s been in the NBA, either in shorts or suits, for nearly 40 years. “He’s just playing the right way. He’s got the right spirit. He’s doing everything he thinks he should do to help us win without taking us out of our stuff. He’s letting it come to him and being aggressive at the same time.

“Which is an art.”

» READ MORE: Sixers believed Toronto prepared them for Heat, who beat them with the Raptors’ formula