TORONTO — Raptors coach Nick Nurse has decided that size really does matter in this Eastern Conference semifinal.
The Toronto squad had been absolutely brutalized on the glass by the 76ers through the first three games. Even in the Raptors’ Game 1 victory, the Sixers picked up 13 offensive rebounds to the Raptors’ two. In Games 2 and 3, the Sixers outrebounded the Raptors a combined 97-71.
So Nurse made a change. Before Sunday’s game, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka had shared the floor for a total of 4 minutes through the playoffs. On Sunday, they played 23 minutes next to one another.
“It just felt like we were getting pushed around a lot on the glass the last two games,” Nurse said after the series-tying 101-96 win. “That would happen with our small lineup. [The Sixers] were just throwing it up there and revving their engines and flying to the rim.”
The Sixers’ rebounding advantage disappeared in Game 4 and became instead a level playing field, with each team collecting 43 rebounds.
Sixers coach Brett Brown was expecting a change and for the Raptors to come out with more size. Though he says he was not caught off guard by the rotation change, there’s no denying that the Raptors found an offensive spark.
Both Gasol and Ibaka had only tallied single-digit performances through the first three games and both finished in double digits on Sunday. Gasol finished with 16 points, including two three-pointers, and Ibaka closed the night with 12 points on 6-of-12 shooting to go with nine rebounds and three blocks.
A combined 28 points might not seem like a lot, but most were hard-fought points, and anything that can take some of the load off Kawhi Leonard’s back is a good thing for Toronto.
Playing both big men next to each other, especially when both are willing to shoot from three-point range, gives Toronto a little more offensive space, and it pulls the Sixers’ larger defenders away from the rim. But, when the Sixers fall back to help on any one of the driving weapons the Raptors have, Ibaka and Gasol are waiting and willing to pull the trigger from deep.
Nurse couldn’t have been happier with the results, and moving forward he wants to ramp things up more, getting his big men to take even more outside shots.
“Those guys gotta take 'em,” Nurse said Monday following practice. “Marc stepped in and made a couple. Serge has historically made those. They’re going to have four or five opportunities apiece to shoot 'em tomorrow night, and they’re going to have to do it.”
This, after all, is what the playoffs are all about: adjustments.
Gasol has only been with the Raptors since the trade deadline, and in that time the minutes spent on the floor with Ibaka have been in passing and meaningless for the most part. So any familiarity and chemistry is going to have to happen in real time, but that doesn’t worry either of them.
“He was really good,” Gasol said of Ibaka. “Defensively, communicating, flying around. Now we know we’re going to be out there a little more, and that 5-4 pick-and-roll, we’re going to figure that out, and work on it.”
The way the Raptors see it, they aren’t thinking about losing another game. So worst-case scenario, they rebound a little more and coming back from a 2-1 series deficit becomes a team-building and bonding experience.
“We haven’t been through many struggles as a team, so I think all that was a positive thing,” Gasol said.
Size certainly helped in Game 4. On Tuesday night, they’ll try it out at home and see if it has the same effect.