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Tobias Harris continues to show his worth under Doc Rivers

Harris has a legitimate chance to become the NBA's ninth 50/40/90 player.

Tobias Harris, striking a strongman pose, has been clutch for the Sixers this season.
Tobias Harris, striking a strongman pose, has been clutch for the Sixers this season.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

BOSTON — Turns out folks were wrong about Tobias Harris.

Back in August, the 76ers were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the same Boston Celtics squad they’re facing Tuesday night at TD Garden. Right now, fans appreciate and celebrate what Harris means to the Sixers.

But following that playoff series, it was the opposite.

Harris averaged 15.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists in the series. However, he struggled shooting, making just 38.3% of his shots, including going 2 for 15 (13.3%) on three-pointers.

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Many were critical of Harris and his five-year, $180 million contract after the Sixers were swept in the first round for just the third time in franchise history. They talked of the Sixers overpaying for a guy who couldn’t produce in the clutch.

Enter new coach Doc Rivers, who has a different role for Harris than his predecessor, Brett Brown. Now, those same critics are no longer criticizing the 10th-year veteran. They’re criticizing how he was utilized last season.

That’s because Harris is flourishing in his second go-round with Rivers, who came to the Sixers after seven seasons with the Clippers.

Back in Los Angeles, Rivers brought the best out of Harris, who averaged a career-best 20.9 points and shot a career-best 43.4% on three-pointers in 55 games with the Clippers during the 2018-19 season, before being traded to the Sixers.

Rivers, arguably a future Hall of Fame coach, is doing the same this season with the Sixers.

Harris has averaged 20.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, and a career-best 3.6 assists through 45 games played. He also shot 52.5% from the field, 40.1% on three-pointers, and 89.9% from the foul line. Harris has a legitimate chance to finish the season shooting above 50% from the field, 40% on threes, and 90% on free throws.

That would be a major feat, considering only eight have finished a season with 50/40/90 splits. Only Larry Bird, Steve Nash, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Malcolm Brogdon have done it.

“He’s just been consistent,” Shake Milton said of Harris. “He’s played at an All-Star level since the beginning of the season. You know he’s a bucket in whichever way you want to do it — post up, shooting, off screens, coming off. It doesn’t really matter.”

Harris’ leadership goes beyond on-court performances. He’s not afraid to address teammates when they’re messing up or praise them when they’re going well.

“His presence alone has been huge this season,” Milton said.

Harris’ late-game presence helped the Sixers avoid a loss to the last-place Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday. Harris scored 12 of their final 14 points to close out the 122-113 victory, finishing with a team-high 32 points.

He made 4 of 6 shots in the fourth quarter, while the rest of the Sixers shot 4 for 11. He scored all 12 of his fourth-quarter points in the final 3:24, after the Timberwolves closed the gap to four points (108-104), by taking advantage of mismatches.

“Win by any means,” Harris said following the game. “That’s really my mentality. I know the fourth quarter is crunch time.”

He’s had his share of late-game heroics for the Sixers this season. Two of his most memorable ones came against the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.

Harris scored 12 of his 24 points on 3-for-4 shooting in the fourth quarter of the Sixers’ 107-106 victory over the Lakers on Jan. 27. No shot was bigger than his 15-foot jumper that turned out to be the game-winner with three seconds remaining.

Then in a 131-123 overtime over the Jazz on March 3, Harris scored 11 of his 22 points in the overtime session. With the Sixers trailing 120-118 in OT, Harris scored the next eight points to give them a 126-123 lead with 1:37 remaining. His layup 33 seconds later gave the Sixers the lead for good. Harris went on to score the final three points of the game. He made a technical foul shot with 30.8 seconds left. Then he hit a pair of foul shots to give the Sixers a 131-123 lead with 27.6 seconds left.

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The biggest difference for Harris is how he’s being utilized this season. He was out of place in 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.

Harris and the Sixers will ultimately be judged by what they do in the postseason. But the same critics who blasted Harris and his contract are now praising him.