The Toronto Raptors hosted their former head coach and his new team, the Philadelphia 76ers, at Scotiabank Arena tonight and given Nurse’s “homecoming;” the recent history between these two teams; and the bizarro vibes still hanging around the Raptors following Friday’s mystifying loss to the Chicago Bulls, you might have expected another weird one.
Instead, this one went pretty much by the book, with the Raptors, an oddly-constructed team still trying to find its identity under a brand new coach, falling to the team with the the MVP and former Coach of the Year, 114-107.
Although the Raptors held the lead through most of the first half, Nurse’s Sixers used a big third quarter, in which they outscored Toronto 35-20 on 14-for-23 shooting, to turn the game in their favour. The Raptors did a Nick Nurse tribute fake comeback — they cut the Sixers’ 14-point lead to five, and seven, and seven again, in the final six minutes — but couldn’t close the deal.
As he’s done all too often in his young career, Tyrese Maxey eviscerated the Raptors, scoring 34 points on 20 shots, along with 7 assists. Even Nurse noted post-game that he was glad to be on Maxey’s side this time, as he seemed to drop 30 every time Nurse’s Raptors played him. Joel Embiid, the reigning MVP, scored 34 of his own (on 21 shots) and added 9 boards and 8 assists. Tobias Harris chipped in 15.
With O.G. Anunoby out due to muscle cramps, Gary Trent Jr. slid into the starting lineup for the Raptors. He scored 17, but needed 16 shots to get there. Scottie Barnes led the way for the Raps with 24, with 17 of them coming after halftime; he added 8 boards and 5 assists. Pascal Siakam scored a quiet 11.
Rookie Gradey Dick was the best story on the Raptors side of the ball; he scored 15 points of the bench on 5-for-8 shooting, and was one of only three Raptors players on the positive side of the plus-minus ledger tonight.
But Nurse, naturally, was the main story heading into the game. It’s safe to say there’s still some healing to be done; Nurse said it was “weird” walking into the arena, and of course, most of the questions the media had for him centered on his exit from the team. When asked if he had regrets, Nurse (wearing a 76ers cap pre-game, not his NN hat that he conspicuously wore last year) quickly said “nope” — but overall he was diplomatic, as you’d expect, repeating that it was simply time. “A lot of great years, a lot of great memories,” he said, adding that “it ended the way it ended.” Asked when he knew it was time, he said he had thoughts about it during last season, when the team would get mired in a losing streak and people would naturally start talking “and it gets you thinking.” He said maybe it could have gone the other way, if the team had a played a little better down the stretch.
He did say, though, that it was “way stranger” than he expected, coming back so soon, adding that maybe wasn’t ready for it — he hadn’t even had time to fully reflect on his 10 years here. He noted that in addition to his coaching, his kids were born here, he coached the national team, and he loves the city, all of which makes it hard to come back — harder, he added, then returning to any of the other cities in which he’s coached.
I’m no body language expert, but I do have to say that although Nick’s responses were verbally what I’d expect, the way he delivered the words was unexpected. Nick is usually pretty direct when responding to questions, but his delivery was less confident when talking about his exit. I almost want to say that he sounded wistful about his time in Toronto. He kinda looked into that middle distance while speaking, and the words came out slowly, like he was trying to find the right thing to say. And maybe you could read it like he was trying to find the words and not say anything incendiary or give the Raps any bulletin board material. But I read it like a guy who – while not feeling regret – probably feels disappointment and might even wish it had gone another way.
But hey, that’s just my interpretation. Pre-game, Nick said he really enjoys coaching this 76ers team, and from what he’d seen of the Raptors on film, they were also in a good spot, meaning everyone is where they need to be.
The fans, at least, seem to still be fond of the former coach; Nurse got a nice ovation when introduced with his starters, and received a tribute video and an even longer ovation during the first timeout.
The Raptors stared the game on absolute fire from downtown, draining their first eight three pointers and moving the ball effectively. Barnes had the team’s first five points, on a drive and a three pointer, as the Raptors stuck to their processes early. A Trent steal and dunk gave the Raptors an early 11-8 lead and got the crowd into the game. Unfortunately, two early fouls on Jakob Poeltl sent him to the bench after only four minutes and took some air out of the arena. It didn’t help that his replacement — Precious Achiuwa — missed his first three field goals (including a dunk and a layup).
Despite missing Poeltl and Anunoby, the Raptors looked good in the halfcourt early, moving the ball and cutting with intention. Pre-game, head coach Darko Rajaković stressed that developing the team’s halfcourt offense – atrocious last year, and possibly even worse through two games this year – will be a journey. He said he’s encouraging the team to stick together and remind them that it’ll take time to get to what they really want to do.
Gradey Dick was the second Raptor off the bench, and knocked in a first-quarter triple for his first NBA points; feeling it, he curled off a screen on the next possession and drained a 15-footer. He capped the quarter with a quick-trigger corner three that gave the Raptors a 36-27 lead after 1.
Dick and Siakam both finished the first quarter with eight points. Embiid scored 14 for Philly, with four of his five made field goals coming in the paint.
The Raptors’ hot shooting wore off in the second, as they missed four straight threes — and got away from most of the ball movement that served them so well in the first. And although the Sixers were even colder from downtown — they missed their first six triples — they outscored the Raptors 16-10 to start the second, and tied the score at 46 on their first three-pointer, from Maxey, with seven minutes to go in the half; they took their first lead, 51-48, on another Maxey three two minutes later.
The Raptors’ inability to sustain their halfcourt process isn’t surprising; as Rajaković said, it’s a process, and this early in the season, teams are still feeling each other out, especially when they’re paying a team with a brand-new head coach like the Raptors; it felt like once the Philly defense saw what the Raptors were doing, they locked in just a little more, and the Raptors — similar to last night — were unable to adjust.
Having Poeltl in foul trouble didn’t help — when he was in, and the Raptors got him the ball at the elbow, good things inevitably happened, like when he dished to Schröder from the left elbow, allowing Schröder to slip around him and beat Embiid to the rim. That bucket gave the Raptors the lead back, 53-51. A Trent three capped off an 11-0 Raptors run, but an Embiid drive and another Maxey three cut the Raps’ lead to 59-56 heading into halftime.
Bench-wise, Rajaković said pre-game that he’s still looking for the correct balance and rotations, but that he wants to give guys chances. “It’s a process,” he said, “not just over two games, it’ll take the whole season.” While that’s a refreshing change from Nick Nurse, whose leashes were sometimes as short as a french fry, I wasn’t thrilled to see Malachi Flynn come off the bench with four minutes to go in the first; his first two games were awful, and you could say the same about first three years in the league overall.
In the first half tonight, Malachi had two unforced turnovers, including dribbling a ball off his foot in the backcourt, and was ineffective driving the ball. He wasn’t as bad as the first two games — he was only a -2 on the night, and drained two threes — but I’ve yet to see anything from him that makes me think he can be a capable backup in tis league.
In more positive bench news, before the game, Rajaković gave Chris Boucher credit for staying ready and having an impact against the Bulls, despite getting a DNP-CD against the Minnesota Timberwolves. His effort was rewarded with more minutes tonight, and an early three-point play rewarded the coaches for putting him in there. Although Boucher didn’t contribute much to the boxscore, he brought his usual high energy to his minutes, hopefully earning himself a spot in the rotation for the foreseeable future.
The Sixers started the second half on a 21-5 run, which included three more three-pointers from Maxey, plus six points from Embiid. Rajaković picked up his first career technical as a head coach five minutes into the third, after Barnes missed a fastbreak layup on which both Barnes and Rajaković (and the crowd) thought Barnes was fouled. Maxey’s three on the next possession made it a 77-64 Philly lead.
After a timeout, the Raptors’ D picked it up a little, with Barnes blocking a Melton floater and a collapsing D forcing P.J. Tucker to throw a bad pass out of bounds. Barnes capped off a 6-0 run with a baby hook to cut the lead down to seven; Dick had a chance to cut into the lead further, but airballed a corner three, and Embiid scored the other way.
Barnes did his best to keep the Raptors in the game — he scored 8 in the quarter — but Embiid and Maxey were too much. The duo combined for 27 of Philly’s 35 third-quarter points (on 11-for-12 shooting!), and Philly took a 91-79 lead into the fourth.
The Raptors hung around — Dick and Schröder hit two threes apiece cut the lead to 6 with 6 minutes to go. But a bucket from Maxey, four quick ones from Kelly Oubre Jr. and another Maxey three, pushed the lead back to a dozen. Schröder and Barnes didn’t quit — another Schröder three and drive from Barnes cut the lead as close as seven — but the Raptors ran out of time, falling 114-107.
The Raptors host the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday, then head to Philly for a rematch on Thursday.