PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Tobias Harris picked a pair of Philadelphia’s deep reserves to knock him around and toughen his game on the low post. The trio talked smack, and their post-practice workout sessions resembled a kind of bully ball for most of the last three months, all so Harris was better equipped for the postseason grind.
“I know the people who watch, the people who see, my teammates, they respect that,” Harris said.
And the payoff?
“You have a night like this,” Harris said.
Harris showed why top-seeded Philadelphia might have its own Big 3 worthy of winning a championship. He scored 37 points, carrying Philadelphia’s offense when it sagged early, and the 76ers survived the sub.-500 Washington Wizards in a 125-118 Game 1 victory on Sunday.
“We see him early on dominating the game and you want to keep giving him the ball because he’s feeling it,” guard Ben Simmons said.
Harris scored 28 points in the first half, making a case that Philly has — with All-Stars Joel Embiid and Simmons — three big stars that could rival the superstar trio of Kevin Durant-James Harden-Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn.
Embiid finished with 30 points. Game 2 is Wednesday in Philadelphia.
The Sixers needed Harris’ outburst to offset an upset-minded Wizards team that was within five points with 45 seconds left. Bradley Beal scored 33 points and Russell Westbrook had 16 — but neither sensational scorer took over in long enough stretches needed for an upset.
Westbrook even stepped out of bounds with 37 seconds left, cutting off a potential rally. He declined to say if the referees made the correct call.
“It doesn’t matter now. It don’t matter,” Westbrook said.
Unable to create consistent offense outside of Harris, the Sixers finally put together a 3-point barrage late in the third quarter that had 11,160 fans — roughly half-capacity — sounding as if it was 20,000-plus packing the house.
Harris, of course, hit a tying 3, Seth Curry hit his first, Danny Green buried one and Curry pounded his chest and talked smack after another 3 made it 88-81.
The fans erupted soon after in a “Trust the Process” chant with Embiid at the free-throw line, and the Sixers closed the quarter with a 99-93 lead.
The Sixers hung on for their first playoff win in two years, even as Simmons went 0 for 6 from the free-throw line and scored only six points. He had 15 rebounds and 15 assists.
“He created so many points for us,” coach Doc Rivers said.
Embiid was whistled for three fouls and the Sixers missed 14 of 17 3-pointers in the first half, leaving it up to Harris to play up to his $180 million contract.
Harris spent the season believing he was worthy of an All-Star spot and opened some eyes with 28 points on 12-of-19 shooting in the half. He played the half like he was trying to win a game of HORSE — turnarounds, fallaway jumpers, pull-up jumpers in the paint, and in one instance, he drove the length of the court before he hit a little floater. He finished 15 of 29 from the floor and hit two 3-pointers.
Some of the credit to his success went to two Sixers not in the Game 1 box score — Rayjon Tucker and Paul Reed.
“They’ve got a lot of guys that can fill the stat sheet and Tobias was that guy tonight,” Beal said.
Beal, who torched the Sixers for 60 points in January and has been bothered of late by a strained left hamstring, and Westbrook combined for just 20 points in the first half, but Washington led 62-61 at the break.
Washington advanced by routing the Indiana Pacers to emerge from the play-in round as the East’s No. 8 seed, returning to the playoffs after a two-year absence. The Wizards were a disaster early in the season, dealing with injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak. They started 0-5 and were 17-32 in early April. They made the playoffs at 34-38 and are trying to become the first team with a losing record to win a playoff series since the 1987 Seattle SuperSonics.
Washington’s must-win attitude down the stretch spilled into Game 1. The Game 1 trend this weekend had been heavy favorites with time off — such as Brooklyn against Boston — needing time to find their legs before putting the game away. The Wizards played Thursday — while the Sixers had a full week off — and played every minute as a team determined to steal one on the road.
“I don’t think I played great. I don’t think I had a good game,” Beal said. “I think we still got a couple levels we can tap into.”
Wizards: Went on a 10-0 run late in the first quarter with Embiid and Simmons on the bench. … Washington and Philadelphia played each other for the first time in the postseason since 1986.
76ers: Dikembe Mutombo, who helped lead the Sixers to the 2001 NBA Finals, received a rousing ovation when he rang the ceremonial bell to start the game. .. They went 27-5 in the regular season with Simmons, Curry, Green, Harris and Embiid in the starting lineup. … Harris’ 28 first-half points were the most by a Sixer in a playoff game since Allen Iverson scored 30 against New Orleans in 2003.
YOU’RE THE MAN
Rivers went to each Sixer this week and told him how important his contribution this season was to their success.
“I thought this year, every guy needed to know what their value was to this team and how important they were, and how important each guy’s role was,” he said.