Yes, the Philadelphia 76ers are for real — and Wednesday night further proved that.
A thrilling one-point win thanks to Tobias Harris’ game-winning fadeaway lifted the Sixers to a 107-106 victory over the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers to keep their spot atop the Eastern Conference at 13-6.
Suddenly, Wednesday night’s thriller at Wells Fargo Center is being considered a potential NBA Finals matchup; a concept many believe is a year overdue. After all, the Sixers were deemed an Eastern Conference favorite last season before the team nosedived to a mid-standings finish and a first-round playoff exit via sweep by the Boston Celtics.
The introduction of Daryl Morey as president of basketball operations to help tweak the roster and the hiring of Doc Rivers as head coach looks to have instituted the proper culture that fosters success rather than drama.
Now the Sixers are a well-rounded threat anchored by what some are questioning as an Eastern Conference “Big 3” to challenge the likes of the Brooklyn Nets’ killer trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden.
Joel Embiid is playing like his 2018-19 self, but better, posting 27.7 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. Over his last four, he’s averaging 35.3 points per night, including 28 in the win over Los Angeles.
Uncertainty still looms around point guard Ben Simmons, especially because his offensive game has yet to come around. It may be time to accept that this isn’t the kind of player who will put up a 20-point, 10-assist double-double every night, especially because of his inability to develop a three-point shot.
But Simmons is still very much the floor general of the Sixers’ machine and effectiveness is oftentimes far more important than flash. Against the defending champs, Simmons posted a 17-point, 11-rebounds, 10-assist triple-double while going 8-of-15 from the floor.
The potential third member of this hypothetical “Big 3” in Philadelphia, though, is Harris, who is playing like a man possessed in the second year of his five-year, $180 million deal.
A power forward who averaged 16 points per game over his first nine NBA seasons is posting 20.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, and nearly one steal and block per game through 16 appearances this season. He followed up a 25-point performance on Monday night against the Detroit Pistons with 24 against the Lakers and that game-winning jumper.
While Embiid and Simmons get the headlines, Harris is starting to be looked upon as the man to close things out for the Sixers.
“We’re trying to just keep getting him to his spot,” Rivers said. “We ran a similar play, not the same, but a little bit similar in Memphis [on Jan. 16], and he got too deep, he went out of bounds, and we told him ‘You were on your spot and then you passed it up. Get to your spot, elevate, shoot. Keep the game simple.’ When he does that, he is unbelievable.”
At this rate, Harris is only going to keep elevating as that third constant threat for the Sixers. But it all boils down to his mindset.
“Just confidence. Being able to want to be in those spots,” Harris said. “I’m a person that visualizes myself in those spots so when the opportunity came, we came out of the timeout, and me and Seth [Curry] were talking and discussing how they’re more likely to switch that pick-and-roll coming off Joel isn’t open and just let me ISO at the top and get to my spot.”