2021 Playoffs: East First Round | 76ers vs. Wizards

Tobias Harris steps up for Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1

With Joel Embiid in first-half foul trouble, Tobias Harris picks up the slack en route to a playoff career-high 37 points in Game 1.

Tobias Harris (37 points) Highlights vs. Washington Wizards

Tobias Harris sets a career playoff high with 37 points vs. Washington in Game 1.

Not every team in the NBA is fortunate enough to have a “Big Three.” But every good team has plenty of situations in which it needs a reliable, dependable, sometimes unexpected and occasionally dominant third option.

That’s what Tobias Harris was for Philadelphia in its 125-118 Game 1 victory over Washington Sunday afternoon: a near star who played like it when the Sixers needed it most.

Harris, nearing the end of his 10th NBA season split among five franchises, scored 37 points, his career playoff high and the most by a Philadelphia player in the postseason since Allen Iverson in 2005.

The 6-foot-8 forward got 28 of those in the first half, when Philadelphia’s MVP candidate Joel Embiid was hobbled by foul trouble. Any inclination to expect the scoring slack to be picked up by the versatile but non-shooting Ben Simmons would have been misguided, so Harris seizing the opportunity – first half, first game of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference series – made all the difference.

“It was huge,” said Embiid, who stuck around longer in the second half after logging barely 10 minutes and scoring nine points in the first. “When I was on the bench, we needed a scorer. He showed up, the whole game really but especially in that first half.”

Embiid got to his average by scoring 21 more in the second half, made possible by only picking up one more foul after getting called for three before halftime. He and Harris thus became the first Sixers teammates to each score 30 or more in the playoffs since Charles Barkley (38) and Hersey Hawkins (35) did it against Cleveland in April 1990.

Simmons pestered Wizards stars Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and anyone else he breathed on, while collecting 15 rebounds and 15 assists to go with his six points. Philadelphia dialed up its defensive intensity over the final two quarters, too, particularly in bogging down Washington’s transition game (14 points in the first half, just four from there).

But there was no wiggle room over the game’s first 24 minutes. The Wizards led 62-61 at the break and the gap might have been daunting had Harris produced at the pace neither he nor anyone else in the organization or fan base appreciated in recent playoff tests.

Since he got to Philadelphia about two years ago, Harris’ postseason work wasn’t befitting a player making $33.5 million who has been on the cusp of All-Star status for at least four years without actually getting that nod. For the Sixers, in series against Brooklyn, Toronto (both in 2019) and Boston (last year), he played well below his regular-season standard, averaging 15.6 points on 41.4% shooting, including 30.8% from 3-point range.

“I am not one that dwells in the past,” Harris said last week during the Sixers’ break between regular and postseason.

Well, the present was demanding Harris’ full commitment Sunday afternoon and he responded.

As it was, Harris wound up a mere plus-2 while outscoring everyone else on the floor. With Embiid playing less than 30 minutes, with Philadelphia getting outshot overall and outshot in the paint and with every non-starter coach Doc Rivers turned to winding up in the minus column.

“Tobias I have full faith in,” said Rivers, who coached Harris for 87 games with the Clippers from 2017 to 2019. “Just from a body of work.”

Beal said the Wizards must make sure the Sixers’ third option gets plenty of attention, no matter the double- or triple-teams Embiid demands.

“He just got too comfortable,” Beal said. “Every time I turned he was getting downhill.”

Said Harris’ teammate Danny Green: “He did what he’s been doing. He’s been carrying the weight.”

The way the Sixers typically defend, and with the results Embiid and Simmons reliably get, they won’t need Harris to step up like this every game. Then again, the heavyweights they need to get past in the East throw numbers of their opponents. Brooklyn’s Big Three finally coming together is one of the NBA’s biggest postseason storylines, and Milwaukee got past Miami in overtime Saturday because its three top stars played like it.

Now Philadelphia and its fans can say the same thing about their opener.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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