76ers coach Nick Nurse makes first return to Toronto

The Toronto Raptors will face former coach Nick Nurse for the first time when the Philadelphia 76ers visit on Saturday night.

The Raptors have split their first two games under new coach Darko Rajakovic. They lost 104-103 in overtime to the host Chicago Bulls on Friday despite a triple-double from Scottie Barnes, who had 22 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Chicago’s Alex Caruso sank the game-winning 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left in OT.

Toronto won its season opener at home on Wednesday, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves 97-94.

The 76ers lost their first game under Nurse 118-117 to the host Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday.

Nurse coached the Raptors from 2018-19 until the end of last season, when he was fired after Toronto lost a play-in game against the Bulls following a 41-41 regular season. The 76ers hired him on June 1.

Nurse guided the Raptors to their only NBA championship in 2019.

During his five seasons in Toronto, Nurse went 227-163, and his .582 winning percentage ranks as the best of any Raptors coach. He also spent five years as an assistant to then-Raptors coach Dwane Casey before taking over the top job.

The 76ers remain without disgruntled James Harden, who did not make the two-game road trip. Nurse said he did not feel that Harden’s absence was a distraction.

“I thought we gave a great effort and we played extremely hard,” Nurse said of the loss at Milwaukee. “We did some really good things. We did certainly miss some assignments and scheme stuff … but that’s going to happen right now. But I do like the way we adjusted to some things and played a lot better. I mean, we had every opportunity to win that game.”

Harden, who requested a trade during the offseason, missed the first day of training camp. After returning, he did not play in any of the team’s preseason games while working on his conditioning. He also had a 10-day absence for what the Sixers called a personal matter.

Harden returned to practice on Wednesday with the intent of accompanying the team on its season-opening trip. However, the Sixers instructed him to stay behind to “ramp up” his conditioning at their practice facility.

In his absence, Joel Embiid appeared sluggish while scoring 24 points on 9-for-21 shooting with seven rebounds, six assists and seven turnovers.

The Raptors might be missing a key player on Saturday, too, as OG Anunoby left the Friday game with 7:05 to go in the fourth quarter due to muscle cramps and did not return.

Toronto had a 17-point lead with 4:58 to play in regulation, then went up by four in overtime but made key mistakes.

The play of Barnes early in his third season has been a positive. After a promising rookie campaign, he had a slow start last season. He has been a force on defense this week, adding two blocked shots on Friday to the five he had on Wednesday.

Rajakovic believes Barnes could one day be a Defensive Player of the Year.

“I just feel like I don’t really get that recognition, as I should,” Barnes said. “But I feel like I’m a great defender. You see me, I can guard one through five, anybody on the court. I pick up full-court sometimes.

“I do it all on the defensive end, so that’s what I really take my pride in. That’s where my game starts — on the defensive end. Being able to go out there and guard anybody, taking pride in it, that’s just my mentality going into every game, trying to start off on defense.”