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76ers' Tobias Harris Talks Russell Westbrook, USAA and More in B/R Exclusive

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2021

Philadelphia 76ers' Tobias Harris plays during an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic, Friday, May 14, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Some teams try to throw away particularly poor losses and attempt to move on by forgetting about them. 

Not the Philadelphia 76ers.

"It was a full-on motivation from last year," Tobias Harris said of his team's sweep by the Boston Celtics in last season's playoffs during an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. "It gave us a whole different approach this year. We got Coach [Doc Rivers] in, he established a whole new system and a new type of culture. And us as a group, we just bought into it. I think that was the most important thing, everybody understood that losing is terrible and it's not a good feeling to go out that way. So we have a chip on our shoulders."

That chip on their shoulders resulted in the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference this season.

The decisions to hire Rivers and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey helped as well, as did trading for Seth Curry and Danny Green to space the floor with shooting around Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Harris.

Philadelphia now has a 2-0 lead over the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs and appears primed to challenge for a championship just nine months removed from getting swept out of the Walt Disney World Resort bubble by Boston in a series it played without Simmons.

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When Harris isn't helping spearhead that championship push on the court, he is often looking to honor the military off it.

His grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel John Mulzac, was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. Mulzac, who died in 2015, served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War and tallied 15,000 hours in the air.

Tobias Harris @tobias31

Honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country and paying tribute to my Grandfather Lt. Col. John I Mulzac Sr., who served as a Tuskegee Airmen. @USAA sent me this poppy, which will be a symbol of remembrance on Memorial Day. #HonorThroughAction #USAApartner https://t.co/KEAqSPSUEE

With Memorial Day approaching, Harris partnered with USAA in an effort to recognize and honor military members and veterans with digital tributes to those who have been lost. Those who visit PoppyInMemory.com can dedicate a digital red poppy flower to fallen military members.

"My grandfather was a Tuskegee Airman, and Memorial Day was always a moment for myself and my family to cherish just because of the sacrifice that he put in," Harris said. "And he would always talk about the type of sacrifice that was for himself and family and everyone he was around. ... Myself and USAA are coming together to really allow people to just take a moment to respect and give honor to those who put others before themselves."

Harris will also be on the court this Memorial Day for Game 4 of Philadelphia's first-round series against the Wizards.

While the No. 1 seed usually cruises in the first round, Washington is not a typical No. 8 seed. It already played under the win-or-go-home pressure of the play-in tournament, Bradley Beal finished second in the NBA with 31.3 points per game, Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the fourth time in five years and the team went 17-6 in its final 23 regular-season games.

It had all the makings of a close series during a back-and-forth Game 1, but Harris' 37 points helped stake the 76ers to the initial advantage. They then built on that and won Game 2 in decisive fashion by 25 points with the 28-year-old forward tallying 19 points and nine boards.

"Obviously, it's the playoffs so our energy is really locked in and focused," Harris said of his fast start in the postseason. "Being at the highest level for me is being able to find a rhythm and get into a flow out there and making quick decisions. That's one thing that Doc has talked to me about all year is making those quick decisions on the floor and being able to make plays for other guys out there."

Game 2 was memorable for more than just Philadelphia's impressive performance, as a fan dumped popcorn on Westbrook's head as the point guard was heading down the tunnel after suffering an ankle injury.

Westbrook was so upset that security and event staff had to hold him back, and LeBron James was among those who supported his fellow player in the aftermath:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Russ got heated after a fan threw popcorn at him https://t.co/XyMRUxUVwc

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

"This s--t is getting out of hand." Russ sounds off after a fan dumped popcorn on him in Philly. *NSFW* https://t.co/uWyWCyfR9r

LeBron James @KingJames

By the way WE AS THE PLAYERS wanna see who threw that popcorn on Russ while he was leaving the game tonight with a injury!! There’s cameras all over arenas so there’s no excuse! Cause if the 👟 was on the other 🦶🏾.🎥 #ProtectOurPlayers

"I didn't like it," Harris said when asked about the fan's behavior. "I didn't like it at all. That doesn't have a place in our sport or our game."

The 76ers apologized to Westbrook for the "unacceptable and disrespectful behavior" and announced the fan had his season ticket revoked and was banned from Wells Fargo Center indefinitely.

Similarly, the New York Knicks announced a fan who spit on Trae Young was banned from Madison Square Garden indefinitely.

Despite the two negative incidents, the return of more playoff-like atmospheres after last season's fan-less postseason inside the bubble has been a major storyline. The big moments feel more important, especially in venues like Madison Square Garden where spectators can feel the energy in the building through the broadcast.

Philadelphia announced it increased capacity to 50 percent at Wells Fargo Center for the first round against the Wizards, and Harris can already tell the difference.

"It's a huge difference," he said. "When you think about the playoffs last year being in the bubble and then the playoffs this year being in arenas where you have a lot of fans who are excited to get back … We understand how important our fans are. We're always pushing to be No. 1, but that was a huge reason. Having our fans back is important to us as a group and as a whole, and we love that energy that they bring us."

If Harris and the 76ers continue to play like they have in the first two games of the playoffs, those fans will have plenty to cheer about in the coming weeks.

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