Nick Nurse faces biggest test following Game 1 disappointment

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Back in July, when the Toronto Raptors went to Summer League, Nick Nurse made the unorthodox decision to coach the team. The Las Vegas event is usually an opportunity for assistant coaches to get a feel for what the top job is like, but the upcoming NBA season was going to be Nurse’s first go at it at the NBA level.

Despite all his time as the lead man in England and the NBA D-League, he sat as Dwane Casey’s right-hand man for long enough that he felt the need to shake off some rust.

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He admitted as much after botching a late-game scenario in said Summer League, during a game against the Charlotte Hornets on July 14.

“Completely honest with you, I’m a little rusty,” Nurse said after the contest. “I really feel like, usually, I’m really a good, quick, decision maker late in games but it’s been five years so this is part of the reason I’m coaching... I had two easy choices and didn’t get to either one of them.”

Over the course of the regular season, Nurse was dealt a tough hand. While he’ll never complain about being blessed with the best roster in franchise history, injuries and personal issues rarely saw him have every possible tool at his disposal. A Fred VanVleet would return, but a Norman Powell would get injured. A Powell would return, and a Jonas Valanciunas would go out. On and on it went with the rotating doors.

By necessity, it forced Nurse to turn to a variety of lineups, some of which he admitted only needed a game to find a groove, others needing closer to 15 or 20 to figure out how to operate. All this information was supposed to be beneficial come the spring.

It is now the post-season, and the Raptors have preached all along that this is the moment that they have been waiting for. That the load management for Kawhi Leonard — who was fantastic — the further dip into the all-in basket with the trade for Marc Gasol, and even the late pursuit of home court for a potential NBA Finals series against the Golden State Warriors showed that Toronto was making every attempt to be forward-thinking for this moment right now.

And that’s why some of the decision-making for Nurse in Game 1 of Round 1 against the Orlando Magic leaves plenty to question.

How could Kawhi Leonard only play 33 minutes?

This sticks out like a sore left quadriceps. Leonard mostly skipped 22 games this season to ensure he’d be ready for April, May and June. He played 34 minutes per contest — a career-high — when he dressed in uniform, and somehow Nurse managed to play him for less than that on Saturday.

There was no foul trouble, and no plan to be cautious in the first round, so in a game that was tight throughout the second half and came down to the final shot, this is puzzling. The most awkward moment came when Leonard went to the scorer’s table with just under nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and waited to check in, except that there was no stoppage in play for a couple minutes and Leonard only checked in with under seven minutes remaining after the Magic called timeout.

“No reason for it, and yes he could have went a little bit longer,” Nurse said after the game. “Just the stretches were okay there i think, and I liked what was happening. We put him up there a little earlier in the fourth and the clock didn't start until the timeout, so that was another factor a little bit that had him a little low. But yeah, I looked at it too and thought we should have had him out there a little bit more.”

Orlando does a terrific job of defending without fouling, doesn’t turn the ball over, and doesn’t generally pursue deflections that could potentially knock the ball out of bounds. Nurse has to know this is the case and if it’s time to get his star in the game, then he needs to do so. At the time, Nurse had three timeouts remaining, and ended up having one go unused. That’s a rookie mistake.

It’s also another way you let the Magic off the hook. Leonard is by far the best player in the series, and to leave him off the court for 15 minutes of game time only serves to increase Orlando’s margin for error. Add to that just how heavily dependent the Magic are on meaningful contributions from their wing players, and Leonard needs to be in the 36-38 minute range at a minimum during this series when considering the absence of OG Anunoby.

Leonard walks off the court after the Orlando Magic defeated the Raptors 104-101 in Game 1 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series in Toronto on Saturday. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Leonard walks off the court after the Orlando Magic defeated the Raptors 104-101 in Game 1 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series in Toronto on Saturday. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

Where was the 2-for-1?

Toronto had the ball with 45 seconds remaining and the score tied at 101. Some proper execution and the Raptors should have had set themselves up with two cracks at the basket to the Magic’s one.

The first mistake was Lowry quickly inbounding to Danny Green. While he was able to quickly get the ball up the court, there was nothing to be had against a great transition defence team — let alone semi-transition off a made basket — in the Magic. By the time Green handed the ball back to Lowry who gave it up to Leonard, there were already eight precious seconds shaved off the clock.

If Nurse was saving the timeout from before in not getting Leonard back in the game soon enough so he’d have them at his disposal in the final minutes, to not use one here was an egregious mistake.

Leonard ended up creating a wide-open look for Gasol in the corner, but allowing Orlando to essentially dribble out the clock shows a lack of attention to detail from a coaching standpoint that doesn’t augur well for potential future series against the likes of a Mike Budenholzer or Brad Stevens.

Steve Clifford is bringing his A-game and Nurse needs to show he’s got more up his sleeve.

Stagger better

The Toronto starting lineup was a plus-13 in 21 minutes. The immediate reaction is that the unit should probably see more time on the court together and while there is potential for a bit of an uptick, it would also give Nurse less to play with for the transitional units.

The two bigs with Gasol and Ibaka (plus-2 in three minutes) and the two smalls with Lowry and VanVleet (minus-2 in 12 minutes) played out to a net-neutral, but the flow of the game seemed to favour the Magic in these moments. Like Goldilocks, against this Magic team, it’s about playing the guys who fit just right.

With Anunoby out, it needs to be Leonard, Green, Siakam and Powell who see the most minutes at the wing positions, and while I’ve already harped on Leonard’s minutes, Green can probably stand to see a slight rise from the 34 he played.

Freeing up those wing positions for wing players allows Ibaka and Gasol to stay in their flow, and could also allow for more Gasol minutes with the second unit. Khem Birch equipped himself quite well against Ibaka, but Gasol could drag him out to the perimeter while also holding his own inside. The Raptors are a better rebounding team with the Spaniard on the floor and so that’s a potential rotation adjustment that could trigger a notable improvement.

It wasn’t all bad and it wasn’t by any means all Nurse

Seeing a five-man unit of VanVleet-Green-Leonard-Siakam-Gasol get outscored by 16 and not collect a single assist in five minutes together is something a brave few would dare predict before the game.

A lot of this had to do with Toronto’s inability to handle the pick-and-roll in the first half. What should please many is the manner in which the Raptors limited D.J. Augustin in the second half, holding him to one point for all but the final minute of the second half when he picked up those crucial five that swung the game.

You can virtually guarantee that Green will spend more time on Augustin in Game 2 after a relatively successful night, which moves Lowry over to Fournier.

The Raptors also did an excellent job against Nikola Vucevic and will take a return of 11 points on 14 shots every time. Gasol looks to be a matchup nightmare for the Montenegrin, and the most meaningful way for him to address that is to hit his outside shots.

As mentioned in my Siakam piece, Nurse did a good job of freeing up the forward with some switches onto point guards and centres. Attacking Vucevic as much as possible will be crucial going forward.

The turnovers the Raptors had as a result of entry feeds were horrendous. That’s focus, not Nurse. Toronto will now be well aware of just how active the Magic are on defence and the length that allows them to shrink the court, so expect better execution in Game 2.

Ultimately, it cannot be lost that the Raptors fell on a shot in the final seconds despite playing well below par. The adjustments that need to be made going forward are subtle enough, and could make the result markedly different.

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