So much of the focus ahead of the Sixers’ game against the Raptors Sunday was on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
And for good reason.
Embiid put up a goose egg the last time the teams faced off and has historically struggled with Marc Gasol. Simmons was coming off a career-high 34 points and made his second NBA three Saturday night.
While both players had roles in a 110-104 win Sunday night (see observations), it was Tobias Harris leading and rookie Matisse Thybulle following that kept the Sixers unblemished at the Wells Fargo Center.
Harris poured in a game-high 26 points, taking on the scoring load with Toronto head coach Nick Nurse’s game plan focused on stopping the Sixers’ young All-Stars.
“Yeah, 100 percent,” Harris said when asked if this is the most comfortable he’s felt here. “I think I’m in a really good rhythm of just going out and embracing and feeding off my teammates, and getting into a flow.”
Since a slump that saw him miss 23 straight threes, Harris has been pretty darn consistent. Over his last 12 games, Harris is shooting 41.3 percent from three and 50.6 percent overall.
If there’d been a knock on Harris outside of that tough stretch, it’s that he hasn’t looked as aggressive as a Sixer as he did during his stint with the Clippers. That hasn’t been the case recently. He’s averaged 16.3 field goal attempts per game over the last 12 games and has taken at least 22 shots in three of the last four.
Even during Harris’ up and down play, he’s remained a leader — a role he’s taken seriously since he signed the biggest deal in franchise history this summer.
And his teammates have responded.
“Aside from being an amazing example, he’s just been like a big brother,” Thybulle said. “We sit next to each other on every flight and he’s constantly giving me advice. I seek him for all my questions — whether it’s financially, on the court, off the court, I go to him. He’s done it at a very high level for a while now, and I really look up to him in that sense. He’s been able to be a huge role model for me.”
Whatever Harris has been telling Thybulle, it’s been working. When GM Elton Brand traded up in the draft to get Thybulle, nights like this are presumably what Brand had in mind.
Thybulle was his usual self on defense — annoying veteran Kyle Lowry, coming up with steals and contesting shots. On the other end, he continues to shoot the basketball at a high level. He hit a rookie career-high five threes and reached the 20-point mark for the first time. He’s now at 44 percent from beyond the arc, the highest percentage among rookies with at least 50 attempts.
In a contest that felt like it had a lot more juice than a regular-season game in December, Thybulle didn’t shy away from the moment — despite a couple late-game turnovers. The Sixers as a team had a brutal last few minutes as the Raptors went to a full-court press in desperation.
The thing Harris wants Thybulle to remember is that he was one of the main contributors in helping the Sixers build a huge lead.
“Matisse is great,” Harris said. “I was telling him in there, ‘Don’t let the last minute and 30 seconds kill your vibe of the game, because you helped us secure that win tonight.’ He came in and his energy was amazing. He was able to knock down big shots, big threes that really pushed our lead each and every time they tried to make a run. He was amazing out there, man. He’s an amazing player, amazing person, amazing rookie. Every night I’m on him, each and every game, to continue to progress, continue to stay ready and locked in. He’s really catching his stride now.”
There is a refreshing vibe about Thybulle. He knows he has a job to do and he takes it seriously, but he also allows himself to enjoy it. He’s also not taking any of it for granted.
“That’s something I find myself thinking about a lot,” Thybulle said. “Even just six months ago, if you had told me I’d be in the position that I am today, it would have been really hard for me to believe you. I think I’m incredibly blessed. I’m so grateful. To have the guys that we have on this team and to have the opportunity that I have has been nothing short of a blessing.”
That’s a level of humility his “big brother” would approve of.
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