Tobias Harris is the 76ers’ X factor.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are the team’s All-Star cornerstones. But Harris’ play will go a long way in determining how successful the Sixers are this season. They’ll need him to be a lethal scorer who can complement those two.
So far, he has.
Monday was the latest example of doing that just.
The power forward played a major role in the Sixers’ 118-101 victory over the Charlotte Hornets at the Wells Fargo Center, hours after being named Eastern Conference player of the week. Harris had 22 points, five rebounds, and two assists despite sitting out the fourth quarter. The win enabled the Sixers (6-1) to complete the two-game sweep of the Hornets (2-5). Philly posted a wire-to-wire 127-112 victory also over Charlotte here Saturday night.
This was the first of five “baseball-style” two-game series the Sixers will participate in this season.
The NBA implemented these series as a way to cut down on travel during the pandemic. Teams play two consecutive games in the same city against each other on back-to-back nights or over three days.
On this night, the Sixers had all five starters and two reserves score in double-digits.
Like Harris, three of those starters — Embiid (14 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, two steals), Danny Green (13 points), and Seth Curry (11 points) — sat out the fourth quarter. Simmons, the other starter, had 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists. He was subbed out of the game with 5 minutes, 35 seconds remaining.
Rookie Tyrese Maxey (a career-high 11 points) and Shake Milton (10) were the reserve double-figure scorers. Meanwhile, Dwight Howard just missed a double-double, finishing with nine points and game-high 13 rebounds. Second-round pick Paul Reed made his first appearance of the season.
Harris is 19 points shy of reaching 10,000 for his career.
Seven of his points came in the first quarter on 3-for-5 shooting. He added four points in the second quarter, before dominating the third quarter. That’s when he scored 11 of his points on 5-of-8 shooting. He scored nine straight points for the Sixers on a layup, a dunk, a three-pointer, and a jumper. Then after a layup by Green, Harris scored on a dunk to put the Sixers up 82-66 with 1:31 left in the quarter.
Harris, 28, has benefited from reuniting with coach Doc Rivers this season. A 10th-year veteran, he had a career year while playing for Rivers as a Los Angeles Clipper before being traded to the Sixers on Feb. 6, 2018. Rivers accepted the Sixers’ coaching position on Oct. 1.
“Coach has done a great job of getting him in his spots,” Matisse Thybulle said. “We’ve got good space, and he’s playing with a high level of aggression, shooting the ball great. I think a lot of confidence is there with him, and it shows.
“And defensively, since I’ve known him, he’s been trying to grow.”
That goes back to the last offseason, watching Harris do defensive slides with no cones.
“I think we are now seeing it on the court,” said Thybulle, a second-year guard.
Offensively, Harris is averaging 20.8 points while shooting 50-for-89 (56.1%) in the last six games after scoring 10 points on 3-for-13 in the season opener.
“From the first game, when I went back and watched it, it was just missed shots that didn’t fall for me,” Harris said. “And then going on [afterward], I think it was more of a change of pace of how we were playing. And we understood from Game 1 that we have to use each other out there and we have to play with one another.”
From that, the Sixers started flowing in a groove that has enabled Harris to raise his game. He seems to play better, find his spots, and be in rhythm as the ball is moving.
“I think as a group, and I can speak for myself, we have a really good rhythm,” he said.
There’s actually a part of Harris’ game that folks haven’t seen a lot of this season. Rivers said Harris was known as an excellent post player during AAU basketball and at Tennessee. He got away from that and worked on his three-point shooting. Rivers’ staff has gotten him back to straight-line drives.
“But I think another part of his game that we will use more and more is his post game,” Rivers said.
The Sixers face the Washington Wizards at home Wednesday before Thursday’s much-anticipated road game against the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn will be without Kevin Durant, who is expected to require seven days of quarantine before resuming play due to contact tracing/exposure to COVID-19.
On Monday, the Sixers wore masks on the bench before entering the game. The league has informed all 30 teams that players must wear masks until they enter a game. Rivers had recently been fined $10,000 by the league for not keeping his mask on his face during games.
“Honestly, I thought it was the right fine, and the right thing to do,” Rivers said. “You know, we all have to try to adhere to the rules. I forget.
“I have three people on the bench that have to remind me now, K.J. [Johnson] the trainer, Kevin Hughes, and whoever else is behind me on the bench. I bet two times today, they had remind me to put my mask back on.”
The Sixers can’t hear Rivers through the mask. So he takes it down to talk and forgets to pull it back up. The 59-year-old joked that maybe it’s an age thing.
“But listen, we have to adhere,” he said. “Just because we have the vaccination, this still not a safe time, and we have to do it.”
Green appeared to injure his right hand in late in the first half. He went back to the locker room to get X-rays and had his middle and right fingers on that hand taped up during a timeout with 5:02 before intermission. Shortly after returning to the bench, Green re-entered the game with 1:58 remaining in the half.
His hand didn’t appear to bother him.
He buried a three-pointer with 1.8 seconds before intermission to put the Sixers up 58-43. That capped the Sixers’ 27-7 run to end the half.
“I thought the end of the second changed the game,” Rivers said. “You know for sure, and then we came out in the third and kind of put it away.”
Gordon Hayward paced the Hornets with 18 points. Terry Rozier finished with 15 points two nights after scoring 35 points.