PORTLAND, Ore. — This is the Tobias Harris the 76ers thought they were getting.
The power forward is living up to the hype he received after the Sixers acquired him in a blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 6, 2019. Harris is also showing why the franchise signed him to a five-year, $180-million contract five months later.
After a subpar 2019-20 season, the 28-year-old is playing at an All-Star level this season. His play is the main reason why the Sixers took an Eastern-Conference best 18-7 record into Thursday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center.
“I love how he’s playing,” said first-year Sixers coach Doc Rivers, who coached Harris during parts of two seasons with the Clippers before the trade.
Rivers loves how Harris is making decisions and playing downhill while averaging 20.3 points and 7.5 rebounds and shooting a career-best 43.8% on three-pointers as of Thursday.
“He has been fantastic,” the coach said. “I think his biggest improvement has been defensively. He has been absolutely wonderful. I don’t remember that Tobias in L.A., so I am really happy with that.”
While his defense has improved, Harris’ biggest impact has come in the fourth quarter of recent games. Harris’ scoring average of 8.2 points in the fourth quarter of games since Jan. 31, ranked sixth in the Eastern Conference and 13th overall in the league, but even that’s a bit misleading.
While Portland’s Nassir Little has only played once during the span compared to five times for Harris, Little tops the list after scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter against the Bucks on Feb. 1. Oklahoma City Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whose second-best average of 12 points in the fourth quarter during that stretch, only played in two games.
On the other hand, Harris has played in five games and shot a combined 60% in the fourth quarters. He left his imprint late in the game in key road wins against the Pacers (Jan. 31), the Charlotte Hornets (Feb. 3), and the Sacramento Kings (Tuesday).
Harris had 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter of the 119-110 victory over the Pacers. He followed that up with 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting and going 4 of 4 from the foul line in a 118-111 win over the Hornets. In the 119-111 victory over Kings, Harris scored 12 points on 4-for-5 shooting, including making both of his three-point attempts, in the fourth.
As impressive as those games were, Harris’ most memorable performance came in the 107-106 home victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 27. He scored 12 fourth-quarter points on 3-for-4 shooting. No shot was bigger than his 15-foot jumper that turned out to be the game-winner with three seconds remaining.
The biggest difference for Harris is how he’s being utilized this season. Harris was out of place in former coach Brett Brown’s system. Many times, the forward was stationed in a corner, waiting to shoot threes. He only had an opportunity to display his overall game when the Sixers were undermanned and needed him to help pick up the slack.
That hasn’t been the case under Rivers, who’s making sure Harris gets his share of shots and in the right situations. He also moved back to power forward, his natural position, after playing small forward last season.
“For me not having to make stuff up on the fly,” Harris said of his success this season, “it’s real strategic in the shots I know I can make and create, and using other guys around me to make it a bit easier for me.”
He and Sixers “facilitator” Ben Simmons have always had the connection of being able to find three-point shooting opportunities in transition.
Harris also benefits from the attention that Joel Embiid receives in pick-and-rolls. Teams have to decide if they want to leave Harris and double-team the All-Star center.
“Now on top of that,” Harris said, “just fueling off the spacing and shooting out there, and the real reason for success is getting those looks and making them.”