Philadelphia 76ers: Tobias Harris needs to channel closer Jimmy Butler

The Philadelphia 76ers didn’t deserve to win what could have been the penultimate contest of their series against the Atlanta Hawks; not with how poorly they played down the stretch.

For those who either mercifully missed the game or have blacked it out like that one time in college, the Sixers didn’t make a shot from the field in the final three minutes of action and allowed their obviously not 100 percent center take five of their final seven shots from the field (more on that here).

Despite watching Shake Milton go off for six points to start the half, Doc Rivers opted to go with his starters for the final frame – if you will – of regulation, all the way up to the 6.6-second mark where his squad couldn’t even get off a shot before the clock expired.

It was ugly, I hated it, and after turning in a pair of impressive blowouts over Nate McMillan’s squad in Games 2 and 3, the 76ers are once again all tied up with the series heading back to South Philly.

If Joel Embiid can come back healthy – or at least with his meniscus tear flap orientated in the right direction – the Philadelphia 76ers will surely remain the favorites to advance to the Finals for the first time since 2001 to face off against a smoking hot Kevin Durant fresh off a 49 point triple-double – or, as improbably as it may seem, the Milwaukee Bucks. But if Tobias Harris once again disappears in the fourth quarter, that proposition becomes a whole lot harder.

Tobias Harris needs to learn from his former Philadelphia 76ers teammate.

The Tobias Harris glow-up has been a heck of a lot of fun to watch.

After drawing some ire for the exorbitant price Elton Brand paid for his services via trade and paid financially a few months later, a matter only made worse by a poor overall showing team-wide in what would go down as the final season of “The Brett Brown Years,” Harris truly came into his own in his 10th NBA season, a feat that was in no small part helped along by reuniting with his ex-Clippers head coach Doc Rivers.

Harris took less time with the ball in his hands, removed some of that 2006 Camelo Anthony from his game, and truly developed on the defensive end of the court, finishing out the regular season with a defensive rating of 108.0, which ranked eight league-wide behind some pretty darn good defenders.

Cast as the Sixers’ second-leading scorer behind the man, the myth, the legend, Joel Embiid, Harris’ shooting efficiency numbers went up across the board, and he came a mere two made 3s and two made free throws away from joining the elusive 50-40-90 club; a club he has only sniffed at through the first nine seasons of his NBA career.

If Harris can continue to perform like he did in Game 1 versus Washington, or Game 5 versus Washington for that matter, the Sixers will happily ride his 23.2 points, 1.1 steals, and 8.8 rebounds until the wheels fall off, but if he instead plays more like the second half of Game 4 versus Atlanta, things might not be so copasetic.

To say Harris disappeared at the end of Game 4 would be an understatement. Despite scoring 14 of the team’s 62 points in the first half in addition to a block, an assist, and two rebounds, Harris was a variable nonfactor in the second half – scoring six more points in the third quarter before going scoreless in the final 12 minutes of action.

If that was that, it would be mildly understandable; every player has a bad game on occasion for one reason or another; just ask Embiid. But Harris’ fourth quarter wasn’t your usual poor shooting performance.

Well, technically it was a bad shooting percentage, in that Harris missed both of his attempts from the field and didn’t even record an official shot during his final 3:23 run.

But how can that be? Embiid was clearly limited and struggled mightily to get the rock in the hoop during the final two minutes of action. Why on earth didn’t Harris pick up that weight, put it on his shoulders, and win a very winnable game himself?

Basically, why didn’t he pull a 2019 playoff Jimmy Butler and step into a point forward role when his team needed him most?

In 2019, Butler was the man. He played hard-nosed D, averaged 1.4 steals per game, and scored double-digit points in all but two of the Sixers’ 12 playoff games. When games tightened up in the fourth quarter- as playoff games often do – Butler would take it upon himself to keep the Sixers’ collective heads above water, taking on a point forward role with Simmons shifted inside to the dunker spot.

Was it perfect? No. Butler has never been an elite 3 point shooter – game-winning daggers aside – but his ability to keep the offense moving while giving Embiid a break made the offense far more multidimensional and, thus, far more dangerous.

While Embiid can serve as a closer more often than not, forcing him to do so in double-coverage when he can’t even get up for a dunk is just poor planning.

Simply put: If Embiid is limited, it needs to be Harris who steps up to shoulder that burden.

For what it’s worth, Harris has been a pretty darn good player for the Sixers so far this postseason. He scored 20 plus points in all but one game and has taken over entire quarters, both playing with the starters and with the reserve unit. While the pressure is certainly different in the final two minutes than the first six of, say the second half, shooters shoot and scorers score; if you’re a max player, you can’t shy away from the moment.

The Philadelphia 76ers traded for and eventually extended Tobias Harris because he’s the prototypical NBA combo forward. He can shoot 3s at a high clip – even if he really should average more attempts per game – score from anywhere on the court and has developed into one of the better defensive forwards this side of the Rockies. But his on-court performances weren’t the only reason Elton Brand felt confident that Harris was worth acquiring. Harris has proven himself a great community leader, a strong commercial actor, and a respected leader of men. In my opinion, at least, that leadership should extend to helping the team win at the end of fourth quarters with the ball in his hands, especially if Joel Embiid is limited.