ORLANDO, Fla. — Tobias Harris was transparent while addressing Monday night’s mounting frustration, shown as he lifted his arms to egg on a home crowd verbally expressing its displeasure in his performance against the Houston Rockets.
But he also maintained perspective.
“Nobody died,” Harris said, a chuckle and smile momentarily breaking his serious tone. “I just got booed, right?”
Harris’ gesture — which occurred late in the first half Monday after he missed an open three-pointer and a runner near the rim in a span of 22.5 seconds — was a flashpoint during an up-and-down season, the 76ers forward acknowledged. The normally reliable Harris missed nine of the Sixers’ first 23 games because of a significant bout with COVID-19 and its lingering effects, along with minor injuries. His shooting percentages this season — 45.1% from the floor and 29.9% from three-point range — are among the worst of his career.
The man nicknamed the Machine because of his relentless work ethic is, in fact, human. But with the support of his teammates, coaches, and family, Harris hopes his 22-point, nine-rebound, four-assist performance in Wednesday’s road victory against the Magic was a first step in moving forward.
“I don’t want nobody to get it twisted — I love our fan base,” Harris said. “I love the excitement coming into Wells Fargo [Center]. I know they are our sixth man in helping us, and I also know with praise you also have to be willing to take criticism as well.
“At that point I was completely frustrated, for sure. It was just one of those things. But obviously, something that I learned from it is just to keep it cool all the way around and keep being who I am.”
Harris yields a particularly sharp microscope as a player making max-contract money for a Sixers team that is on a five-game winning streak but has generally underperformed this season without Ben Simmons or a suitable replacement acquired via trade.
Sixers coach Doc Rivers said it is perhaps unfair to compare Harris’ numbers directly to last season’s, when he was an All-Star snub after barely missing the 50/40/90 shooting club. In the 2020-21 season, Harris averaged 19.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game and shot 51.2% from the field, 39.4% from three and 89.2% from the free-throw line. Before Wednesday, Harris had shot 39.7% from the floor and 21.4% from beyond the arc in his previous nine games, a stretch that oddly included his first-career triple-double on a 3-for-12 night in Toronto on Dec. 28.
Although Harris is attempting roughly the same volume of shots (14.9 last season vs. 15.4 this season), Rivers emphasized that the types of shots are different.
Last season, Harris was on the receiving end of a bevy of easy transition buckets with Simmons pushing the pace, or on straight-line drives when the defense helped. Rivers said Harris is still at his best when he decisively attacks with the ball in his hands, an approach shown to him during a recent film session.
“He’ll catch up,” Rivers said of the dip in shooting percentages compared to last season. “I have 100 percent confidence that he [will]. The guy plays his butt off. He’s as professional as you can have in this league — not just on our team, in this league — and everybody on our team sees that.
“That’s why there’s never an issue. You never have an issue with a guy not playing great if you watch him work every day, because you believe eventually he will [break out of it] because he puts the time in. I think that’s how we feel about Tobias.”
Joel Embiid thought Harris’ encouraging the booing home crowd was “nothing,” the self-proclaimed troll reminding that he did the same thing a couple seasons ago. Acting head coach Dan Burke did address the matter at halftime that night, stressing that the only people who matter are the ones inside the Sixers’ locker room. Harris candidly told his teammates that he was upset in that moment. In response, Burke purposely called plays to get Harris involved in the second half against the Rockets, totaling eight points on 3-of-5 shooting with four rebounds and three assists after the break.
Then a conversation with Rivers about the incident before Wednesday’s game “really hit me. … That was something I needed to hear,” Harris said. He focused on playing against the Magic with energy and joy, rather than pressing or overthinking.
After missing his first three shots, Harris hit a three-pointer and a tough finish inside. A floater midway through the second quarter drew a scowl from Harris. Another deep shot got the Sixers within 89-88 in the third quarter’s final seconds, before he opened the final period with the go-ahead driving finish. When Harris buried another three-pointer from the left wing to put the Sixers up 105-94 midway through the fourth, he curled his hand into three fingers and shot his arm down his side.
“There was no hesitation,” Rivers said. “When you get in a funk, you hesitate on everything and then it’s too late. We showed him and we talked about it today. … Like, go. Just attack. I thought every time he did that, it was good for us.”
Rivers was also pleased to see the warm greeting Harris received from teammates in the postgame locker room. But before that, as Harris and Embiid embraced near the visitors’ bench, the Sixers fans who had taken over the Amway Center serenaded them with cheers.
“I don’t think anybody in that arena is harder on me than I am on myself,” Harris said. “I understand that, and I want to play the greatest basketball that I can play. That’s just me as a competitor, person, whatever it is. I work my [butt] off daily to get to that point, and I’m always empowering myself to think positive and push on.
“I will get to the point where I’m playing the type of basketball that I’m comfortable with. Tonight was a good step in that direction, and that’s what it’s about. Everybody goes through rough patches in their careers, as well.
“But for me, I look at it like when I get up out of this, it’s gonna be a good story to tell other people of resilience and just fighting through and finding your rhythm and balance all the way around.”