CHARLOTTE — Tobias Harris bent over at the waist, needing to catch his breath for a few seconds before resuming his post-practice shooting routine Sunday afternoon at the Spectrum Center.
It was the product of Harris’ latest bout with illness, this time a flu that tethered him to his hotel bed with a 104-degree fever and chills while his 76ers teammates pulled off a dramatic comeback victory at Atlanta Friday night.
That came after missing two games with a hip injury less than two weeks ago.
And after missing six games with COVID-19 last month.
And after missing much of the preseason with a knee injury.
For the player who relies so much on rhythm and reliability that his nickname is The Machine, these fits and starts have been frustrating for Harris. But Harris added he is “hopefully” getting all his personal setbacks out of the way in the early season.
“I’m extremely hard on myself,” Harris told The Inquirer following Sunday’s practice. “But I also have to understand that this is a new grind for me, too. ... I also have to be able to be patient and get adjusted with that and keep my mind right.”
Such a string of absences is rare for Harris, who is averaging 19.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 14 games this season. His nine games missed already nearly matches the 10 he missed all of last season. During the five regular seasons before that, he missed a total of nine games and twice played in all 82.
During shootaround ahead of Wednesday’s loss at Boston, Harris notified head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson that he had a (still-lingering) cough. His symptoms got much worse overnight, prompting Harris to turn down an invitation from assistant coach Sam Cassell to get shots up on Thursday in Atlanta. Harris thought he had somehow contracted COVID-19 again, because his symptoms were even worse than when he had the virus (”and I had bad symptoms,” he reminded). Until Sunday’s practice, Harris had primarily “just been in the hotel laying up and trying to rest.”
“I didn’t think that COVID was gonna be a big impact,” Harris said. “I thought I was gonna crush it and just move right on. But when I got the last sickness, that was a hit to me, like, nah, this is more than you think it is. I just have to be cognizant of how I’m feeling on the daily and where I’m at.”
Perhaps it was reasonable for Harris to assume he would easily recover from COVID-19. He played 37 minutes in his first game back against Toronto on Nov. 11, then 35 minutes in a 32-point effort at Indiana two days later. About a week after that, he hurt his hip late in a Nov. 20 loss at Portland, missed two games and then struggled with his shooting (18-of-47 from the floor, 38.3%) over three games before sitting out against the Hawks.
Harris’ rocky start to the season is much like his team’s. The Sixers went 8-2 in their first 10 games, then lost nine of their next 12 while multiple players were injured or in health and safety protocols, before Friday’s gutsy win against the rolling Hawks. But Philly has posted a 6-3 record without Harris and, by comparison, went 2-7 when Joel Embiid was out with COVID-19.
Harris said he has leaned on his family and fiancé, Jasmine, for support through this early-season adversity. To stay present, he has utilized meditation and a focus on daily personal and team improvements. When asked how he felt physically during Sunday’s practice, he replied, “I’m gonna say that I felt good” with a smirk.
He trusts that his wind will steadily return, that soon he won’t need to take breaks during post-practice shooting work. He is hopeful he will feel well enough to play Monday against the Hornets, and that it will mark the start of The Machine’s re-ignition.
“I’ll figure this one out,” Harris said. “When I do get the opportunity to play a bunch of consecutive games and gather my rhythm and my flow, I think everything will come together for me.”