The terrible slump is over and Tobias Harris is still proving his resilience

The terrible slump is over and Tobias Harris is still proving his resilience

It was roughly 2 ½ weeks ago that people thought the sky was falling when it came to Tobias Harris.

He missed 23 straight threes and shot 8 for 30 over the course of two games against the Cavaliers and Magic. From there, the questions arose about the Sixers’ $180 million man. 

Was he worth the money? Can he fit next to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons? Can he be a go-to scorer?

All those questions can’t be answered in one game, but Harris’ performance in the Sixers’ thrilling 119-116 win over the Pacers Saturday (see observations) was certainly encouraging. Even after a couple miscues late in the game, Harris showed his resiliency and finished a dunk off a Simmons’ steal that essentially won the Sixers the game.

To boot, he’s been showing off more of that “scorer’s mentality” Brett Brown has been begging for.

“I think so and I hope so because that's what I have preached to you all and certainly to him — I want him to find the rim,” Brown said. “And a scorer is a scorer. It's not JJ Redick always. It's driving. Like even the play we come down — I could've called a timeout but we had a play and we wanted to get Jo the ball and we made a sloppy pass. Tobias into Jo, it got stolen, but he came straight back out. Ben gets a steal, he's on a straight-line drive and ends up with just a smart, strong finish. 

“… We need him to score. I want him to think like a scorer. And I think that he is. I also think that he's improving tremendously defensively.”

Defense was a point of emphasis for Harris this offseason. 

He wanted to improve his lateral quickness to be able to slide his feet better, especially since he was expected to play more on the perimeter with the Sixers’ huge starting lineup. He told Brown that he didn’t want to be the team’s weak link on defense while being surrounded by four strong defenders.

So far, so good.

I can see in his face — he wants to get better,” Brown said. “He's a prideful person. I forget sometimes really how young he is. A young 26 years old, think of his upside. We all sort of look at him as he's arrived and here he is. By any standard — internationally, domestically, whatever — basketball wise, he is just scratching the surface. And because he's got character and he is an athlete, that can point to defense. And I think that with him, I see that he cares. That's a hell of a starting point. And then he's got the other characteristics that I think can make him an elite defensive player.

What we’ve seen more from Harris than we did during his short stint with the Sixers last season is emotion. Harris has been toeing the line when he’s asked about getting to the line and officiating. On Saturday, he was visibly upset with more than one call.

He didn’t earn a technical like his head coach or point guard did, but he appeared to be tempting fate on more than one occasion. The call Harris had the biggest issue with was a foul he was whistled for on a T.J. Warren three with 41.4 seconds left and the Sixers up 113-111. Warren made all three free throws to put the Pacers up one.

On the ensuing possession, Harris committed the aforementioned turnover when attempting to get the ball to Embiid.

Instead of losing his composure, Harris dug his feet in and made the plays he needed to make.

I don’t know if you watched the game, but I was never frustrated,” Harris said with a laugh. “No, sometimes it goes that way. The foul on the three, that was discouraging for me. I wanted to do anything to be able to win the game at that point. Came back down, we ran a play for Jo and Myles Turner gets around that. Then we just had to go on the defensive end, get stops and get out. But overall, just was able to get in a rhythm from the start of the fourth quarter. Do anything to will us to a victory.

Part of that “anything” was Harris pouring in 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter. He was looking to get his as Brown was looking to Harris to attack mismatches and play the “bully ball” the team has talked so much about.

Harris is a selfless player, but the Sixers’ starters have been a little more selfish lately — and the results have been good.

“Yeah, I think so,” Harris said. “As we continue to figure this out, we’re not fully there yet but we’re taking the right steps game by game and we’re being able to close out a lot of these close games, which is a good thing. But we’re going to continue to find our balance and to really make sure that everybody is fed along the way. That’s going to be the biggest thing going forward with our team. But all in all, we’ve got the right guys, the right personalities that want to win. That plays a big part in it.”

In the games since Harris’ slump, he’s gone 15 of 33 from three (45.4 percent) and 71 of 134 overall (52.9).

Safe to say, Harris knows how to take a hit and get back up.

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To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

In years past, it was a common occurrence for Joel Embiid to make a big play and elicit cheers from a sold-out Wells Fargo Center. He’d then raise his arms, imploring the crowd to get louder — and they’d oblige.

This kind of moment happened in Tuesday night’s 97-92 win in a slugfest against the Nuggets (see observations).

With Denver having gone on a run to cut a double-digit deficit to two, the Sixers made a push late in the third. As the clock was winding down, Embiid grabbed an offensive rebound and made a circus shot while he was being fouled.

Embiid went out to center court, raised his arms and the fans went nuts.

Moments like this haven’t been as frequent this year. Not because Embiid hasn’t had spectacular moments, but because he’s trying to be even-keeled.

I haven't done it enough all season,” Embiid said. “I have not been having fun like usual. … It goes back to with me being mature. And one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun and by having fun is talking trash, but that part, that's kind of been cut. I just need to be myself and I guess just do whatever I want. Because when I'm having fun, I dominate. But this year, I don't know, I can probably count on one hand how many times I've done it. Last year was basically a reaction that I love it. They get me going. They understand me, I do understand them. So, I need to start doing it again because that's how I'm gonna dominate.

Embiid continues to be his dominant self on the defensive end — in case some national pundits forgot that there are two ends to a basketball court. He’s No. 1 in the NBA in terms of defensive rating (95.3) and anchored the defense that held the Nuggets to just 92 points.

With Jimmy Butler gone, it’s also been Embiid who’s been tasked with being the team’s go-to scorer in the fourth quarter. Going to a post player late in games is not something a ton of teams do. Then again, most teams don’t have a big man as physically gifted as Embiid.

Brett Brown has tried to do different things here and there — run isos for Tobias Harris or pick-and-rolls with Ben Simmons. Ultimately, though, Brown said his offense still runs through his “crown jewel.”

Embiid, who almost sounded like a player that had just lost, admitted that he’s still adjusting to his late-game role and also to the idea of drawing attention to free up his teammates.

“Not good enough,” Embiid said when asked about his late-game scoring. “Still getting used to [it]. The whole season I've been trying to adjust. Obviously, it's not the same as last year. It's completely different. So the adjustment has been hard but I'm gonna do whatever I'm asked to every single night. Like I keep mentioning, even if it's being a ball screener or just rebound the ball or take three shots — I'll do that. Whatever they ask me to do.”

It’s been a peculiar season for Embiid. If you were to just look at his scoring numbers, they’re way down. He’s averaging just 21.9 points, down from his 27.5 mark last season. A lot of that is the result of more aggressive double teams and a new supporting cast.

He also just seems a little off as far as his personality goes — and his words Tuesday kind of confirmed that. The only game where he seemed to be his usual plucky self was back on Oct. 30 against the Timberwolves. Of course, that’s the game where he got into a scuffle with Karl-Anthony Towns, shadowboxed to the crowd, got into a profanity-laced Instagram war with Towns, and got suspended for two games.

After that incident, Embiid vowed to never get suspended again. It’s a respectable cause, to be sure, but it seems like it’s led the 25-year-old into an existential crisis.

I'm not trying to be a distraction to the team," Embiid said. "The fight happened and we had good momentum and from there, we just kind of lost it. We lost a couple of games. So, I'm not trying to be a distraction, but that's just part of my game. And I feel like me losing that part, I think it's kind of taken a toll on my game. So it just goes back to me. Sometimes I might be childish and like I said, do whatever I want to, but then again, I care about winning. Everybody knows that. I'll do whatever it takes to win. I care about my teammates, I care about the organization, I care about being a role model. Everybody told me that I need to be — from fans to everybody else — I gotta be mature, so I'm doing it and I don't think it's working but I'm gonna keep doing it.

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question.

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Charles Barkley takes aim at Joel Embiid, says Sixers ‘got no chance’ at NBA Finals

Charles Barkley takes aim at Joel Embiid, says Sixers ‘got no chance’ at NBA Finals

The Sixers have only played 25 regular-season games, but that has been sufficient time for Charles Barkley to form some strong opinions about his former team and Joel Embiid. 

At the September unveiling for his statue at the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, Barkley said the Sixers were his pick to win the NBA title.

His thinking has shifted quickly and, on the NBA on TNT’s postgame show Tuesday night, he targeted Embiid after the Sixers’ 97-92 win over the Denver Nuggets (see observations).

He’s the toughest player in the league to match up with, but we don’t talk about him the way we talk about Luka [Doncic], Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Anthony Davis, James [Harden] — we don’t ever say that about him. It’s frustrating for me, because I picked the Sixers to get to the Finals. They ain’t got no chance. 

Embiid posted 22 points, 10 rebounds and six assists vs. the Nuggets and is averaging 22 points and 12.4 rebounds on the season.The two-time All-Star has a 95.3 defensive rating, the best of any player in the NBA who’s played at least 25 minutes per night.

For Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, the 25-year-old is falling short of his potential.

"We’re telling you, ‘You can be great. You ain’t playing hard enough.’ Twenty-two ain’t enough to get you to the next level,” O’Neal said. “Do you want to be great or do you want to be good? If you want to be good, keep doing 22 points. You want to be great, give me 28, give me 30. You want to be great, watch Giannis — he wants to be great.”

Embiid has admitted that he perhaps hasn’t always played with his highest level of intensity. The Sixers have prioritized managing his minutes and delivering him to the playoffs healthy and in peak physical condition. Sunday, Embiid had an interesting quote about that philosophy.

The whole season it feels like I've been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I'm healthy for the playoffs,” he told reporters. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I've been part of I've not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I've been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body and also, on the court when I'm needed, I'm gonna bring it. But then again, I'm also lucky that we got so many guys that can make a lot of things happen. But if I'm needed, I'll be there.

The NBA on TNT crew is clearly not aligned with Embiid’s outlook. They don't seem impressed with Embiid's defense, the fact that he's been an efficient, high-volume post player on offense, or much about the Sixers overall.

Barkley is almost ready to abandon his preseason prediction. 

“When the season started we were like, OK, Milwaukee is in that conversation, Philadelphia — that was it,” Barkley said. “There were two teams. But right now Boston has really played better, Toronto has played better, and that shouldn’t be. … I don’t want to jump totally off, but I’m in the air.”

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