TORONTO — Tobias Harris placed his hands on his head as he lost the ball with about five minutes to play in the third quarter, then pleaded his case to the official while trotting to the other side of the court.
It was not exactly the typical reaction while Harris was in the midst of collecting his first career triple-double. But it was an appropriate one while facing a pesky, shorthanded opponent that the 76ers could not fully shake until the final minutes.
Harris finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists to complement Joel Embiid’s 36 points and 11 rebounds to lift the Sixers to a 114-109 victory Tuesday night in front of a 50%-capacity crowd at Scotiabank Arena.
“Just wanted to stay aggressive and just create plays out there,” Harris said. “So credit to my teammates for making good looks and being able to knock down shots and finish. For us, it’s just a positive to come on the road and get another victory.”
It was not an efficient shooting night for Harris, who finished 3 of 12 from the floor but believed there were “a lot of good looks that I thought I got hit on.” Yet he had already totaled eight rebounds and eight assists by the end of the third quarter, and manufactured 13 points at the line — including two go-ahead free throws with 1 minute, 20 seconds to play, another pair that gave the Sixers a 112-109 lead with 16.8 seconds remaining, and two more that pushed the cushion to two possessions with 6.1 seconds left.
Harris totaled his ninth and 10th rebounds and assists in the span of 32 seconds in the fourth quarter. Both helpers went to Georges Niang, whose two three-pointers pushed the Sixers’ lead to 95-83 with less than nine minutes to play.
“It’s a great example [that] sometimes you don’t have your game,” coach Doc Rivers said of Harris. “… But he didn’t put his head down. He just kept playing. It’s a question we ask all your guys, ‘If we take away what you do best, what else can you do to help the team?’ And tonight he rebounded, he defended, he passed.”
The Sixers (18-16) prevailed against yet another opponent heavily impacted by health and safety protocols, as Raptors standouts Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes were among the six players unavailable.
But Toronto hung around by totaling 17 second-chance points and 16 fast-break points, by shooting 15-of-41 from three-point distance and by getting a big night from All-Star Pascal Siakam (28 points, six rebounds, eight assists) in his return from health and safety protocols and a double-double from Chris Boucher (28 points, 19 rebounds).
“It wasn’t a pretty win,” Harris said. “... We’ll take it, but we have to get better in a lot of areas. I thought there were a lot of simple mistakes towards the end of the game, a lot of plays that we’ve got to be more cognizant of the importance of it — including myself.”
It was no surprise that both teams got big performances from their All-Stars.
Embiid followed his 36-point effort in Washington on Sunday with another 30-point night. And the Sixers needed his crunch-time buckets, playmaking, and defense, including a three-pointer that put them up 106-100 with about three minutes to play and a finish at the rim to give the Sixers a 110-109 lead with less than a minute remaining.
Embiid took advantage of his mismatch with the much smaller Boucher early, powering an and-one finish into the bucket in the first quarter. Early in the second half, Embiid immediately went to the free-throw line by drawing contact against Yuta Watanabe, then hit a three-pointer to put the Sixers up, 60-54. Then after getting popped in the head, he drew another foul and later finished a wide-open layup on a dish from Tyrese Maxey to give Philly a 72-64 advantage midway through the third.
The outing was Embiid’s sixth consecutive road game with at least 30 points, joining Allen Iverson and Wilt Chamberlain as the only Sixers to accomplish that feat (per Sportrader). He has also averaged 33.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 12 free-throw attempts while shooting 56% from the floor, 44% from three-point range and 87% from the free-throw line over his last five games, per StatMuse.
“It’s fine,” Embiid said. “I’m just happy about the win. The thing that I’m proud of is my defense. I feel like I’ve become an OK scorer, that that’s the part that’s kind of forgotten. I pride myself, and the team really, to get stops, especially when we need them. [I’ll] guard whoever needs to be guarded.”
Siakam, meanwhile, was terrific in his return from health and safety protocols. He made six of his first eight shots and totaled 18 first-half points, blending jumpers with crafty drives to the rim. His layup midway through the fourth cut the Sixers’ lead to 97-92, and his driving shot off the glass put Toronto up 109-108 with 1:08 to play before Embiid’s putback gave the Sixers the advantage for good.
Before the game, Raptors coach Nick Nurse said he expected the Sixers to go “100 miles per hour” and sub liberally.
That did not happen, as Rivers opted to go with a standard nine-man rotation despite having 14 players available compared with Toronto’s 10. Still, depth was a difference-maker in this matchup, as the Sixers had a massive 35-18 edge in bench points.
Niang was the primary spark plug, finishing with 19 points in 22 minutes, including five three-pointers, in his second game since returning from health and safety protocols. One of those long balls put Philly back in front, 80-78, after Toronto briefly took the lead late in the third. Then came the two treys early in the fourth that gave the Sixers a double-digit lead.
“I didn’t want to kind of let the game come to me,” Niang said. “As you saw, my first shot went off the side of the backboard. But I just wanted to impose my will and be aggressive, and that’s what I did when I was in there.”
Added Rivers: “They found him. He was wide open. He made shots. Georges pretty much keeps the game simple. Every once in a while, he tries to do too much with the ball and drives, but Georges is the perfect player for this team.”
Furkan Korkmaz, who finally snapped out of an extended shooting slump Sunday, contributed eight quick points off the bench in the first half and finished with 10. Without Shake Milton and Andre Drummond, who both remain in health and safety protocols, Tyler Johnson (three points) was the backup point guard and Paul Reed (three points, three rebounds) the backup center.
Toronto’s only first-half bench points came on a Svi Mykhailiuk layup late in the first quarter. It was reminiscent of when the Sixers totaled just one bench point in their shorthanded victory in Boston on Dec. 20.
But the Raptors’ reserves played a significant role in their third-quarter charge.
D.J. Wilson scored four points in the quarter, including a transition layup off a turnover that cut the Sixers’ lead to 73-71 to force a timeout. Mykhailiuk then got the Raptors within one at 76-75 by completing a four-point play, then gave Toronto a two-point advantage with a corner trey.
When Niang hit a second-quarter three-pointer right in front of the Sixers’ bench, an eerie silence replaced the typical groans from the home crowd whenever a visiting player makes a big shot.
That’s not a knock on Raptors fans, who are regarded as some of the most passionate in the NBA. It’s another sign of the times as the omicron variant rips through North America and the world. Scotiabank Arena recently reduced capacity to 50%, and stopped selling concessions in an effort to strictly enforce its masking policy.
There were a few moments when pockets of fans started “Let’s go Raptors!” chants, banged thunder sticks to try to distract Sixers players shooting free throws, or clapped along to the music with the encouragement from the team’s mascot. But the changes created an atmosphere that felt like a preseason game, or a 2020-21 matchup as small crowds were welcomed back inside arenas.
The Sixers will conclude their three-game road trip on Thursday at Brooklyn. They are 0-2 against the Nets this season.