Nick Nurse

Nurse talks grueling Knicks series, how he wants his team to approach Game 6 

The Sixers will try to even up an exceptionally tight series Thursday at Wells Fargo Center.

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The Sixers certainly don’t expect to ride the wave of Tyrese Maxey’s Game 5 heroics and cruise past the Knicks on Thursday night. 

“Everybody knows how hard each possession is — both sides,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said Wednesday afternoon. “I think it’s just all about business.”

The job at hand is earning a Game 7 and one more trip back to Madison Square Garden, where Maxey sure looked the part of Most Improved Player in a 46-point performance and gave Knicks fans Reggie Miller flashbacks. 

The key figures on both sides Tuesday logged a gigantic volume of grueling minutes in the overtime contest. Three Knicks played over 50 minutes and Josh Hart never subbed out. Maxey rested for a mere 66 seconds. Tobias Harris got 49 minutes, Joel Embiid 48. 

Nurse didn’t play, but he came away from the night with a swollen finger after slamming his hand down in a moment of frustration about the officiating. 

Embiid will presumably be out there for the vast majority of minutes again. Wearing a brace on his left knee and playing with Bell’s palsy, the seven-time All-Star center has still been a massive positive for the Sixers in the series. The extreme on-off disparities have been reminiscent of the Sixers’ 2019 second-round matchup vs. Nurse’s Raptors.

The Sixers have outscored New York by 48 points with Embiid on the court and been outscored by 46 with him off it. 

Nurse still opted to spell Embiid at the 6:15 mark of the fourth quarter in Game 5. Over the prior four minutes, Embiid had committed three turnovers and missed two jumpers. 

“He just had a really, really, really uncharacteristic stretch of plays,” Nurse said Tuesday night. “It felt like we just had to grab him, at least talk to him and give him a minute or two to settle down.”

Nurse replaced Embiid with Harris and used no conventional center for a few possessions. Like in Game 4, backup big man Paul Reed only received four first-half minutes.

“Listen, he’s trying hard, right? He’s been really close on some stuff,” Nurse said Wednesday of Reed. “It just hasn’t bounced his way, but it isn’t for lack of effort or anything. Again, short memory. He got his hands on a bunch of balls last night that normally he probably grabs and sticks one or two of those back in and all that, but it just doesn’t happen. I’m not worried about his effort level.”

Asked about Embiid’s turnover problems in Game 5, Nurse was brief. 

“There’s some things we saw for sure,” he said. “We’ve just got to talk through, walk through, make sure we’re sharper.”

Nurse was in between jobs last year when the Sixers hosted the Celtics in a Game 6 and couldn’t grab their chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Sixers missed wide-open jumpers, failed to get Embiid late touches, and headed to Boston for a Game 7 that they ultimately lost in embarrassing fashion.

They have of course made many changes since then. Now, as Nurse’s team prepares for more tough business, it’ll be interesting to see how much he trusts his players to organize themselves and how much he leans on play calls in pursuit of offensive structure and the occasional easy basket.

“We’re doing a lot of both, I think,” Nurse said. “The guys are seeing some things. We’re obviously trying to give them some things to run. I think we’re trying to have all good possessions. I still think there’s some room for growth there. … You go into that (halftime) and you think, ‘Oh my God, we have 43 points.’ And you’re like, ‘All we did was get good shots the whole half.’ So you’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing, and believe that what you’re doing is right. 

“We still had a handful of possessions where we didn’t execute right, or we got stalled or chucked the ball right to them or whatever. We’ve got to cut those down, man. We’ve got to cut those down.”

And whenever rough patches do arise, Nurse would love to see the sort of poise Maxey displayed in Game 5.

“I think the main thing is that — and I know it sounds very trite — it’s 48 minutes, man,” he said. “You’ve got to really understand that this is 48 minutes. … You’ve got to keep some composure, and just keep trying to execute and make the right plays. And play as absolutely hard as you can on defense, and play as hard as you can once the shot is released to chase it down.”

As Nurse later noted, the Sixers actually needed five minutes beyond the usual 48 to take Game 5. 

They’d be satisfied Thursday night with anything that sustains their season. 

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