Josh Harris, the 76ers managing partner, remembered that it felt like a crushing gut punch. Sitting in Toronto, he saw Kawhi Leonard break his team’s and the city’s collective hearts on a four-bounce shot at the buzzer that ended the Sixers season.
The 92-90 loss to Toronto in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was something that Harris says hasn’t left him yet.
“I remember I was sitting next to an aggressive Toronto fan, and we were having some words,” Harris told The Inquirer before Wednesday’s home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
And then Jimmy Butler made a layup with 4.2 seconds left to tie the score at 90.
“When Jimmy made his shot and tied the game, I told him [the fan] to sit down, and maybe there were a few expletives beyond that,” Harris said.
And, then, there might have been a few more expletives.
“Kawhi made the shot, and it definitely was a long trip back,” he said.
The despair has been replaced by optimism, because his team is considered among the NBA’s elite clubs.
Yet, Harris admits that the loss in Toronto was a source of offseason motivation.
“I think it 100 percent takes a long time to get over, and 100 percent it stays with you today,” Harris said. “It makes you work harder and get stronger.”
Harris and the Sixers have had plenty of chances to grow through adversity. There were four years of consistent losses, when the Sixers were one of the league’s laughing stocks, accused of tanking to stockpile high draft choices. From 2013-14 through 2016-17, the Sixers went 75-253.
The organization drew criticism daily.
“Obviously, it was hard not to be affected by that, but I kept myself focused on my goal, which was to build a team to be elite and be competitive for a long time,” Harris said. “So, we had to build through the draft, and I felt it was the best way to do it and was willing to take some of the criticism because I felt strongly about the strategy.”
Now, he says he has that elite team, and plenty of people agree.
After two straight seasons of being eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Sixers’ expectations are high. Many feel it is NBA Finals or bust this season.
Harris didn’t take the bait when asked what would happen if the team failed to get past the second round.
“I think all of us want to continue to improve,” he said. “I do, the players do and [general manager] Elton [Brand] does. We will all be disappointed. At the same time, it is hard to play the what-if game; you don’t know where you are going to be or what is going to happen the next 79 games.”
The Sixers have been proactive at the trade deadline, including last year, when they acquired Tobias Harris and Mike Scott and since-departed Boban Marjanovic from the Los Angeles Clippers.
Is this team good enough as constructed, or does Harris foresee more change?
“We are always looking at our team and how we can improve, but, at the same time, we feel the organization is really together,” Harris said. “The players are together, they have a goal and a mission, they are working together, getting better at their craft. There is a huge alignment between the front office, the players, and coaching staff.”
Harris conceded there is more pressure than ever for the Sixers to win a championship. He’s willing to accept the pressure, because it beats the alternative.