PHILADELPHIA—It’s what Nick Nurse does, what he’s done all season. He feels his way through a lot of basketball games, probing for something that will work, something maybe untried before, something that comes in part from the studying the numbers but mostly from his heart.
In what was one of the most important Raptors game in the history of the franchise, Nurse coaxed and prodded and mixed and matched his team to a huge victory.
After barely using Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka together in the season, he ran them out at the same time Sunday for about 25 minutes.
With his bench not offering any production, he went without the group, or at least didn’t play them together. Nurse introduced Patrick McCaw to the series in the first half and then rode his horses in the second.
And with concerns that the Raptors were too small for the Sixers, Nurse trotted out Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol at the same time, for the first time ever.
He was willing to try something, anything, to salvage the most promising season the Raptors have ever had.
Nurse’s machinations — and the sublime play of Kawhi Leonard, who had 39 points — led the Raptors to a 101-96 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers here Sunday that puts them back in control of the best-of-seven NBA Eastern Conference semifinal.
Given all that’s expected of this team, given all the pressure to win bigger than any Toronto team has because of the talent combined with future question marks and the realities of life in the East right now, Nurse’s willingness to experiment and adapt was never more necessary.
To go down 3-1 in the series would have been disastrous; reducing this series to a best-of-three affair with two games at home turns the narrative around. This is now Toronto’s series to take.
And it is in large part because Nurse went off the charts with his frontcourt rotation.
The decision to pair Gasol and Ibaka — partly because Siakam was basically immobile because of a sore right calf — was the most inspired and most successful decision. According to NBA.com, Ibaka and Gasol had played 31 minutes together the entire season, six more than on Sunday.
“We weren’t in great rhythm, right?” Nurse said. “But we were good enough tonight and we were fighting and figuring some things out on the fly.
“We were running some stuff we’ve never run before with Marc and Serge and trying to figure out how to best use the kind of stuff.”
Gasol finished with 16 points and five rebounds; Ibaka had 12 points and nine boards. Their combined size allowed Toronto to rebound equally as well as the Sixers after being hammered on the glass the first three games.
“It just felt like we were getting pushed around a lot by the glass the last two games,” Nurse said. “That would happen with our small lineup, they were just throwing it up there and revving their engines and flying to the rim. Tonight we just had more size that way, and it kind of looked like the rebounds were affected by that.”
Call them centre and power forward, power forward and centre, call them whatever you want, Gasol’s and Ibaka’s versatility and size presented a problem for the Sixers all game. Who knows whether it’s sustainable or whether Philadelphia will find a way to exploit it but, on the one night Nurse went to it, it worked.
“(Ibaka is) comfortable being a five, I’m able to play both positions a little bit,” Gasol said of the coupling. “So it’s simple: Defensively we mix it up, and the actions that they try to run we just need to figure out, and talk, and communicate and be on the same page. Not just the two of us, but the whole team.”
After being out of kilter and out of character when they were wiped out in Game 3, the Raptors played with far more force and intensity in Game 4. There were bodies strewn all over the floor at times. Ibaka and Gasol combined to bang with Joel Embiid all night. It was an impressive performance.
And the guy at the helm made crucial, unexpected moves.
“We had some funky lineups out there at times tonight,” Nurse said. “I don’t know, I just liked the way those guys were playing, I didn’t want any of them to come off the floor.
“That’s just the way I could figure out to keep those same guys going and I think it was a size advantage for us, believe it or not, at some portions of the game.
“It just felt good.”
Doug Smith is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @smithraps