April 15, 2024

Nick Nurse, Kyle Lowry together again with the Philadelphia 76ers

TORONTO — Nick Nurse offered up some truly awful advice Sunday afternoon.

“How do I say this? I’m just trying to think about it,” the Philadelphia 76ers coach said before his team beat the Toronto Raptors 135-120 when asked if Kyle Lowry mellowed out at all in the nearly three years since Nurse last coached the pugnacious point guard.

“You know the situation he is in, so you could probably answer that yourself.”

Put your words in the mouth of Lowry? You might be better off putting your head in a tiger’s mouth, at least spiritually speaking. Some regrets will be involved either way. Anyway, Lowry doesn’t need words to answer such a question. Watching him chew out teammate Tobias Harris after Lowry thought he missed a defensive assignment was as clear of an answer as he might have articulated.

Nurse’s point about Lowry was understood, though: It is quite a trip from making six consecutive All-Star Games, a streak that ended in 2020, his penultimate year with the Raptors, to being traded, bought out of your contract and signing in late February, finally heading to his hometown to play.

At least Lowry has swallowed what has to be among the biggest roles of any buyout player in recent history. He has started 15 of the 18 games he has played for the 76ers. He isn’t driving the car like he did in Toronto, but he’s carefully monitoring the map.

“He’s a good organizer. I think that he’s really helped our defence get better and better just by (understanding) a lot of the things that we want to do as a coaching staff,” Nurse said. “He kind of makes sure they get done out there on the floor. He’s been really good in that sense.”

Add in taking and making open 3s, and that’s all a healthy 76ers team would need for him. This is Joel Embiid’s team, even if he hasn’t played since Jan. 30 because of a knee injury. Embiid has been on this road trip and doing some light work with the team. It is possible he returns soon. After Embiid, it is Tyrese Maxey’s team, but he was out with hip tightness (or a case of the team not needing him against the hapless Raptors, depending on your perspective).

That left room for Lowry to take the competitive portion of the game into his hands. He threw an alley-oop pass out of the pick-and-roll to Mo Bamba, canned a 3 in transition and drew a charge on Raptors rookie Gradey Dick, all in the first four minutes. All of those things are recognizable Lowry staples. He was also, as you’d expect, boxing out players by sticking out his behind. He iced the game later with a 3 and a few assists, getting him to 11 points and 10 assists for the night, controlling the game despite taking six shots in 38 minutes.

“I’m not the go-to guy on this team. I’m the guy that is going to help the go-to guys get better, get open looks,” Lowry said. “If I need to be a go-to guy, I can. Whatever I’m needed (for), I will be able to do.”

There is something bizarre about the former Raptors coach and guard getting together in Philadelphia. The 76ers, of course, are the team the Raptors narrowly held off in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2019. As we get further away from that season — and as the drama in Philadelphia morphs but rarely dissipates — that season looks like it might have been the franchise’s best chance at a title with Embiid. As much sense as it made to opt for Jimmy Butler instead of Ben Simmons because of their ages at the time, things have changed, and it will be hard to get another player as good as Butler to pair with Embiid as traverses his prime.

Maxey is a wonderful fit, though, with the way his speed and shooting create more room for Embiid. Navigating life without Embiid has been the problem. The 76ers have gone 11-18, transforming from a championship contender to the likely road team in the 7-8 Play-In Tournament game. (And, more than likely, visiting Butler in Miami, where Lowry started the season). The 76ers rank 22nd in offence and 23rd in defence since Embiid’s injury.

If Embiid returns and can give Philadelphia more than 30 minutes per game, they will be a scary seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs. It is a big if, and requires things clicking into place very quickly.

In the interim, Nurse has tried to keep his overmatched team in as many games as possible. He anticipates Embiid’s return, should it happen, resolving the offence.

“I’ve just really been trying to get the defence to where I think it needs to be. And schematically,” Nurse said. “They’re getting there. There’s still always room for improvement there. But they’re getting there.”

Fans of the 76ers can take solace in this: Nurse and Lowry have taken advantage of a finite championship window before.


Cool inbound cut by Dick, who continues to make mostly sound offensive decisions. In this MASH unit of a lineup, that deserves praise.

• Throw it down, Jordan Nwora. He was not getting cheated on Sunday night, getting up 18 field-goal attempts in 30 minutes.

• The league should give Garrett Temple money for reviewing his foul of Kelly Oubre Jr. for a flagrant. It was closer to being clean than being over the line. (There was contact between the two players’ legs.)

Kelly Olynyk has been turning the ball over plenty, but it is still neat watching him give his man three pump fakes, having none of them work, and then sling a pass out to a wide-open shooter. It is hard to take care of the ball when you are missing this many regulars, but he has excellent vision. He had 11 assists against the 76ers, two off his career high.

• There are some possessions in which it is unclear what the Raptors are trying to do defensively. More of a concern: I’m not sure the Raptors know what they are trying to do, either.

RJ Barrett was listed as questionable leading up to Sunday’s game but did not play. He is getting his conditioning back, having missed the last nine games since the death of his brother, Nathan. Immanuel Quickley has remained listed as out, as he is returning from a personal issue. In other injury news, Scottie Barnes has begun using his left hand, which he had surgery on earlier in the month to repair a broken bone, in drills. It would be a mild surprise if he returned this season, given the Raptors’ lack of urgency to win, but they would also probably prefer to avoid going into the offseason on a 21-game losing streak. They’re at 13 now.

(Photo of Kyle Lowry with the ball as Toronto’s Javon Freeman-Liberty defends: Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)