Nurse facing slim margin for error, pressure of carrying Raptors further

NBA insider Michael Grange joins Eric Smith to give credit to the 76ers staff for putting Joel Embiid on Pascal Siakam, and why it’s now on the Raptors to take advantage of the mismatch this leaves elsewhere on the court.

TORONTO — Made shots are like sunlight — an all-purpose disinfectant that makes life that much better.

So as the Toronto Raptors gathered for practice ahead of Game 3 on Thursday night in Philadelphia they — and, more specifically, head coach Nick Nurse — were faced with a challenge: How to identify what parts of their game are in need of some heavy-duty antibiotics and which just need some exposure to the hoops version of UV rays.

This is Nurse’s job, as it is for any head coach.

But perhaps one of the downsides — and there aren’t many — with taking over a successful program and being gifted with an elite, veteran roster in your first year as an NBA head coach is that when things drift a little sideways the scrutiny falls on you.

Through six playoff wins the credit has been directed mostly toward the bulldozer that is Kawhi Leonard’s post-season assault, the stunning emergence of Pascal Siakam, with various other contributors coming in and out of the frame.

Through two losses? It was Nurse who had to answer for why Leonard played just 33 minutes in Toronto’s Game 1 loss to Orlando more than Leonard did for blowing the coverage that allowed for DJ Augustine’s game winner.

And even though Danny Green missed two perfect looks from three that could have tied the game at the end of Game 2, or the club as a whole shot just 9-of-29 on shots defined as ‘wide-open’ per, it is Nurse who has the explaining to do.

Why did he think it worthwhile to find 90 seconds for Jodie Meeks at the end of the third quarter — he was minus-4 over the course of three possessions — or why it took Toronto until the third quarter to begin trying to take advantage of Marc Gasol on the block against an otherwise over-matched Tobias Harris?

Or maybe they were just missing shots?

“I think any time, but maybe especially last night, I think when you’re going through it or watching it, it feels really awful, like the offence is out of rhythm and everything’s awful and a lot of those shots don’t go in,” said Nurse Tuesday after the Raptors practiced at the OVO Athletic Centre.

He had a point given the Raptors were held to 36.8-per cent shooting — the first time in the playoffs they have been kept under 44.8 per cent — and it wasn’t like they weren’t getting open looks.

“[But] it’s usually not as awful when you look back and stuff. I think you’re always trying to balance your improvement areas and your execution and ball movement and spacing with, ‘Hey, we did do some good things too,’” said Nurse. “There’s always the good and there’s always the bad, and you wanna keep one of those and try to improve on the other one.”

Again, he had a point.

The Raptors missed 27 three-points on 37 attempts in what ended up being a five-point loss, evening the series 1-1 with Game 3 in Philadelphia Thursday night. In Game 1 they shot 52.2 per cent from the floor.

What was different? Figuring out the good from the bad is Nurse’s lot. The Raptors already had a good coach who could win 50-plus games and reliably advance to the second round of the playoffs. Dwane Casey was fired and Nurse was hired to advance the new-look Raptors farther than they have ever been before.

The margin for error is small.

So Nurse is charged with figuring out how to make life easier for Siakam, who was covered by Sixer centre Joel Embiid in a bid to take away his opportunities in the paint, where he thrives. It worked given Siakam shot 9-of-25, a far cry from the 57 per cent he was shooting from the field in six prior playoff starts.

“I went and kind of clipped them all just to see what it was,” said Nurse in reference to Siakam’s many misses. “I kind of felt during the game that some of [his shots] maybe weren’t the best choices, and there was only a few that weren’t very good choices. I think a couple times he had the space just to shoot and he tried to take up the space and take him on. I think he had one offensive rebound where he turned and Embiid was there, too, and tried to take him on.

“If it was me, I probably wouldn’t go to the rim and try to take him on. But there’s some other things he can do, maybe.”

Because the Sixers have committed Embiid to covering Siakam it leaves them with six-foot-eight Tobias Harris on seven-foot Raptors centre Marc Gasol, which should have created an opportunity inside for Gasol, but the Raptors didn’t get much offence from it. Gasol did have seven post-ups but he passed out of them six times and only attempted a single field goal in the paint. From the Sixers’ point of view, why not keep playing him with a smaller defender if he’s going to give the ball up so easily?

“We’re gonna find ways to exploit that a little bit,” said Gasol, who was working on duck-in moves after practice Tuesday with Raptors assistant coach Jamaal Magloire. “We know once the ball gets there and gets into the paint, a lot of the time Joel is coming [to double]. When he gets there, either I make a play for myself or for somebody else.”


In theory, Nurse approves of having Gasol be more aggressive looking to score down low: “He’s got two guys on him once he gets it … [but] it did create some opportunities, right? A few of those layups Pascal got were directly under the basket from Gasol. There were some kickouts there. But I feel your point.”

It’s Nurse’s feel that will be put to the test in Game 3. Should he dig further into his bench to spark a so-far moribund second unit? Should he run more offence through Gasol in the post? Should he trust Siakam to figure out how to navigate around Embiid’s one-man zone or is there something else worth trying?

Does his team need an injection of special medicine, or just the disinfecting power of some better shooting?

Being a head coach can be a lonely job.

“Don’t think that I’m not tinkering with those in my head all game long,” Nurse said when asked about his rotations in Game 2, but the subject could have been anything. “And then of course, when it’s over, some of the suggestions and things I was thinking about doing, I wish I would have done.

“You always do.”

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