Steph Curry couldn’t be muffled. He drilled 30-footers, slinked through the defense, dropped pretty floaters, and almost single-handedly powered the Warriors to a victory in Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals. He whipped perfect, quick passes out of traps that played into the Warriors’ hands. They looked like the vintage Dubs. When Curry is on, modern defenses have the resistance of cardboard against a tidal wave.
Trailing by 11 with the game dwindling down, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was desperate. The youngest of nine siblings, an unknown interloper who played at the University of Northern Iowa, bouncing around the British Basketball League and the then-D-League before landing in Toronto as an assistant, Nurse was never supposed to be here: under the bright lights of the NBA Finals as a rookie coach, on the precipice of losing one of the biggest games of his career.
He certainly coached like he was playing with house money, whipping out a whiteboard and drawing up a scheme most playbooks abandon after junior varsity: the box-and-one, where one defender — Fred VanVleet, in this instance — hounds the scorer, while the other four defenders form a box around the paint that gravitates toward the threat. The Raptors’ mercurial leader and resident smartypants, Kyle Lowry, immediately co-signed, and they were off to the races.
Despite the fact that the Raptors lost the game, the ploy worked. They almost erased the deficit, and they bumped into a strategy that paid dividends throughout the rest of the series.
Eight months later, the box-and-one has become a weapon for coaches across the NBA looking for ways to slow down ball-handling scorers like James Harden and Trae Young. For the Raptors, whose spate of injuries has put them face-to-face with desperation routinely this season, the box-and-one became a stepping stone to more schemes rarely employed in the NBA: the triangle-and-two and two-three zones morphing into three-two zones. Down 30 points against the Mavericks in December, they came back behind a diamond full-court press. Despite their top six rotation players missing over 10 games this season, the Raptors are 40-15 and the East’s No. 2 seed, with a better record than they had at this time last year, when Kawhi Leonard was still on the team.
As a result, All-Star Weekend will feature plenty of red and white. Lowry and first-time All-Star Pascal Siakam will be joined by the coaching staff, the unsung heroes behind the Raptors’ never-say-die attitude who will coach Team Giannis.
Once upon a time, Nate Bjorkgren was a walk-on at the University of South Dakota, where Nurse was an assistant. Thirteen years later, he hassled Nurse until he let Bjorkgren join the then-Iowa Energy of the D-League as a volunteer assistant. Bjorkgren eventually made the payroll, and they won a title together, cementing a bond that’s turned Bjorkgren into the in-game Nurse whisperer. He is infectiously positive, always seeing the pathway to a comeback, and he has enough leeway to get on his boss. “When I’m constantly saying we’re in trouble, we ain’t got it, we’re not moving, what’s wrong with us? Blah, blah, blah,” Nurse said. “I get those out and he’s got me back on track. He might say, ‘Do something then! Change defenses or something!’”
From there, Nurse might tinker with one of assistant coach Adrian Griffin’s defensive sets. “I think the one thing that's special about Coach Nurse, from working with him, is that he always enhances what you bring to him,” Griffin said during the NBA Finals. “We all have thoughts and they're always good, [but] he seems to make them great.” He is the only former NBA player among the core assistants, the survivor turned lifer who has seen it all as a coach and a player, making hay on defense and wrangling mercurial players.
Or maybe Nurse’ll opt to call a timeout and run an inbounds play from Sergio Scariolo’s playbook. The head coach of Spain’s national team, a two-time Olympic medal winner, will be absent on Sunday. He’s coaching the Spanish national team through European qualifiers, a unique setup for an NBA team. Basketball, like fashion, evolves abroad before Americans notice. When Scariolo ventures abroad, instead of postcards, he brings with him fresh sets.
All four view the game through different lenses. Inside the Scotiabank Arena, their styles converge and lead to new solutions.
“I think that it’s learning from mistakes a little bit,” said VanVleet, when asked what allows the Raptors to function despite competing opinions. “That was something that probably wasn’t the greatest when [former head coach Dwane] Casey was here. I think there were more disagreements than there needed to be. I think that turning over, starting over fresh, I think that’s something that I’ve seen, we’ve been trying to do different. That’s coming from the top down, just trying to figure out better ways to get through those disagreements and just go with a plan and see what works.” He also pointed out that the team Nurse inherited was better. Casey, after all, never got to coach Leonard, and he was dealing with younger iterations of the current roster.
Regardless of the reason, under Nurse the Raptors’ dialogue has shifted. “Instead of worrying about whose idea it is or where it comes from,” VanVleet said, “let’s just try to put a plan together that works and go out there and be on the same page.”
Living proof that good ideas can come from anywhere, Nurse encourages an “open forum” by having the team stand in a circle instead of a huddle at the end of practices.
But creative breakthroughs are mistaken for silver bullets that pierce through the grind that precedes success. Nurse emerged from an airplane prior to the Eastern Conference finals against the Bucks and into virality looking like the guitarist in a Grateful Dead cover band. Plenty of life’s “aha” moments have occurred at the hands of strumming without a known purpose, but good ideas hinge on rigorous study, on staring at something for so long you just can’t stare at it anymore. Nurse’s whimsical persona belies a stern intensity that keeps the trains running on time. When Nurse is asked about culture, he routinely pivots to the organization’s top-down work ethic.
The coaching staff is asked to know more than it needs to. Instead of assigning a specific coordinator for offense and defense or for forwards and guards, Nurse’s assistants rotate between areas of expertise throughout the season. “They’re versatile coaches,” Nurse said. “They’re not just big men or guards or shooting or offense or defense or whatever. In a head coaching position, you need to have a feel for all that stuff and we just try to let them make sure they can keep all that stuff finely tuned and use all their assets that way. I think it’s a lot more work to have to shift gears from one side of the ball to the other, because you kinda get in your groove, but I also think it’s necessary.
“It helps them see things through a different set of eyes. I think the defense has a view from one, and then it gets a different view and then another view, and I think at the end you kinda put all that together and it’s improved in a couple different ways.” Unconventional fixes stay top of mind because no one is ever too far removed from other rungs of the organization, which helps the team succeed, and the assistants themselves like it because their arsenal expands. The setup has married individual and collective goals instead of holding them in opposition.
“I was his assistant in the D-League,” Bjorkgren said. “He gave me a ton of responsibility during that time, and I always wanted to be a head coach. I was a D-League head coach for four years [after]. It’s the same now. He gives assistants so much room to grow, to experience different things through practice and games, and we love him for it. He’s a great coach to be under as an assistant because he wants all of his coaches to be head coaches."
When the box-and-one gambit worked in the Finals, the Raptors got backhanded credit, with the dose of incredulity and offense that accompanies anybody who wins the way they’re not supposed to, by expanding norms without breaking rules. Steph Curry called it “janky defense” after Game 2. In September, even after the Raptors won the series, Curry wore a box-and-one sweater captioned “Respect the Game” as if he weren’t the head of an Under Armour “Ruin the Game” campaign and four years removed from winning his first title with a supposedly gimmicky offense that now governs basketball.
In the Raptors’ locker room, however, winning legitimized the coaching staff. The players met the coaches’ suggestions with skepticism “every day” last season, admitted VanVleet, but winning a championship gave them more rope. “There’s a little give and take,” continued VanVleet. “A lot of the stuff we do now, last year, it took some time to get used to. There’s ups and downs, but I think winning a championship lets everyone be at ease more so because you kinda feel validated. You feel like the stuff you’re doing is working.”
Two hours before playing the Timberwolves on Monday, the Raptors found out Serge Ibaka was going to be out with a cold. The mental and physical fortitude of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 6-foot-5 in shoes, was put to the test when he was asked to bump Karl-Anthony Towns off his spot. They tried more schemes in one game than some teams do all season: man-to-man coverage, then zone before finding success switching everything. They played the entire game without a center and came away with their 15th straight victory. As Nurse put it after the game, “You can reach for the panic button if you want to.”
But the Raptors’ versatile arsenal has equipped them to pound away at obstacles, which is why they’re almost never out of a game. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but not everyone is calm in the eye of the storm. The coaching staff succeeds in these moments because they address problems rationally instead of harping on effort. They want players to exhaust every weapon in their arsenal necessary to win, of course, but they also do the same thing, earning the players’ respect.
The respect is mutual. Beyond the coaches, the Raptors employ the intelligence of their players and ask for their feedback. “The best thing they do is we collaborate,” VanVleet said. “They’re not afraid to ask for our input. If there’s something we’re not feeling, we can speak up. Ultimately, we’ve gotta be comfortable with it for it to work. It doesn’t matter what plan it is, if it’s good or bad. If we don’t believe in it, it’s not gonna work.” VanVleet, the unofficial bench spokesman, lobbied for Norman Powell to get more run during the NBA Finals to great success.
“Nurse is the head coach,” Bjorkgren said, “but I think we’ve got a bunch of assistant coaches, and the players are all coaches, you know? It’s a group that understands the game of basketball very well.”
A series of forces coalesced to allow the Raptors’ to find lightning in a bottle, the stuff every organization aspires for but struggles to achieve. They are developed and ever developing, constantly scratching at the surface for solutions.
“We trust that the coaches are gonna come up with a game plan that we’re gonna execute,” Siakam said. “If it’s not working, we trust that we can adjust on the fly and try something else. One thing we’ve always been doing is trying different things out. We have a lot of things that we can throw at you, and we just trust that it’s gonna work, and if it doesn’t work, go to the next.”
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