These were not the Manchester Giants or the Birmingham Bullets or the London Towers. This was not the British Basketball League championship series.
Nor was it the D League playoffs and the Iowa Energy or Rio Grande Vipers, and Nick Nurse wasn’t a young kid trying to earn his coaching chops.
But we are all products of the past. Life lessons learned all over the globe are part and parcel of what people become, and Raptors coach Nick Nurse wasn’t going to be overwhelmed by the moment on Sunday night.
And all the experience, all the calm he had to show in big games, all the poise he needed under pressure was necessary in a wondrous Game 7 between the Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers.
In what was one of the best displays of defensive basketball played here this season, the Raptors got a buzzer-beating basket from Kawhi Leonard to beat the Philadelphia 76ers 92-90 and win the Eastern Conference semifinal four games to three. They’ll take on the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern final.
Toronto forced a shot-clock violation, a turnover and a missed shot in three crucial possessions in the final two minutes in one of the Raptors’ best crucial stretches of defence in the post-season.
When Leonard, who took 39 shots to score 41 points in a gritty performance, could only split free throws with 10 seconds left, it led to a Jimmy Butler layup that tied it with 4.2 seconds left.
Leonard calmly took the ensuing inbounds pass, dribbled right in front of the Raptors bench and watched as his shot bounced on the rim — before pandemonium set in.
For Nurse, the cumulative experiences gleaned in more than two decades coaching on both sides of the Atlantic left him philosophical about the biggest NBA game he’d ever handled.
“I just think that it goes like this: When 20 years ago, when I’m coaching, it was the world to me. I’m 25 (years old) … I’m coaching the Birmingham Bullets versus the London Towers, it was the world to me,” he said before the drama unfolded in a rollicking Scotiabank Arena.
“It meant everything to me. And I’ve been through it a bunch of times. There’s been a lot of championship games with a lot of different teams.
“I think back to when I was getting ready to coach the Manchester Giants versus the Birmingham Bullets back in 2000. It meant a lot to me in the moment. I can’t imagine it meaning any more. I’ve had a lot of those times in my career and it feels similar.”
But none with two like these.
Neither the Raptors nor Sixers shot with anything close to the necessary NBA consistency or accuracy and the game was riddled with turnovers given its importance, but it was taut and tense and played with incredible passion.
Leonard led Toronto with his 41 points, and Kyle Lowry was wonderful in an all-around performance. The Sixers got double figure scoring from all five starters and Joel Embiid had a double-double to lead them.
Whatever Nurse had learned in preparing himself for the moment, the most important thing was to be adaptable and willing to go with the flow and make decisions that ran counter to what he’d done for six games.
He shortened the rotation to just seven players by leaving Norm Powell out of the mix entirely, and rode Leonard and Marc Gasol to extraordinary lengths.
Gasol was the most important, matched up minute for minute with Joel Embiid for the first time in the series.
“I think a lot of it is situational, too,” Nurse said of his rotation decisions. “You don’t know about matchups, you don’t know about foul trouble, you don’t know about how well the guys in front of them are playing sometimes, too. Usually it’s good problems when you’ve got, like, seven guys you want on the floor at once.”
Nurse did have seven he wanted, primarily because Ibaka played as well as he had since Game 3 of the Orlando series, hitting three three-pointers and finishing with 17 points and a vital offensive rebound in the final 45 seconds.
He and Fred VanVleet — who played more than he normally would have because Lowry had to sit for about five first-quarter minutes with two fouls and another couple of minutes in the second while getting a sprained thumb attended to — were the only backups to get on the court for Toronto.
The Sixers went with just seven players as well, with coach Brett Brown being like Nurse and leaving the game in the hands of his best players.
Doug Smith is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @smithraps