TORONTO — With 3.9 seconds remaining in Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks, Kawhi Leonard had just sealed the Toronto Raptors’ first appearance in the NBA Finals with two free throws that gave the Raptors a six-point lead. The crowd was losing their minds, Drake was jumping up and down, and Kyle Lowry had his hands over his head smiling from ear to ear.
The players were already celebrating on the court, but Nick Nurse refused to blink, gesturing toward his team to come over for a huddle as Milwaukee looked to draw up a meaningless play. It has been Nurse’s greatest strength in his first year as an NBA head coach — the ability to stay in the moment regardless of all the noise around him.
And there was plenty of it. In each of the three rounds the Raptors went on to win, they faced series deficits. Each time, the criticism was stern. Why didn’t Leonard play more minutes in Game 1 against the Orlando Magic? Where was the urgency in Game 2 against the Philadelphia 76ers in letting a six-point fourth quarter deficit get up to 11 before getting Leonard back in the game? Two games into the Milwaukee series it was why stick with Fred VanVleet? Why start Marc Gasol?
“It’d be nice not to face a series deficit, that’s for sure,” Nurse said after practice Monday. “I think you just kind of gotta take it as it comes, you certainly didn’t wanna lose the first game against Orlando but for some reason that ended up being a really good thing for us because we looked pretty good the next four times out. We lost embarrassingly in Philly and played pretty good from then on out.
“We dropped two to these guys (Bucks) but I really wasn’t that despondent about it. I thought we’d go home and get a couple and then we’ll have a series on our hands, so, we’ll just play ‘em as they come.”
That’s not the type of calm one expects anyone in their first year on the job to exude, but Nurse is the rookie that’s been there before. You see it in players from time to time, the ones who just look like they belong and march to the beat of their own drum, or in Nurse’s case, pull out a guitar and strum along.
And why shouldn’t he be confident? Masai Ujiri and the Raptors went through an extensive search to identify the right man to take over for Dwane Casey, still the reigning Coach of the Year and the general who helped Toronto rise from the ashes in NBA circles. They interviewed another assistant in Rex Kalamian, former Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse, San Antonio Spurs assistants Ettore Messina and Ime Udoka, EuroLeague coach Sarunas Jasikevicius, and of course, Mike Budenholzer. The now Bucks head coach may have been the one to turn down the Raptors, but Nurse beat all the others out and most certainly outwitted Budenholzer over the course of the past week when it mattered most.
He’s served in coaching roles to 14 teams across Belgium, Italy, England and the United States and his upcoming opponent is well aware. Steve Kerr, who was once similarly tasked with taking a very good Golden State Warriors team to great, reflected on the difficulty of rising to that challenge.
“For me, I hadn’t coached before, Nick has coached for a long time ... there are some parallels in that they’re a team that’s trying to get over the hump and I think one thing I would recognize is that it’s easier to become the head coach and make a change than it is if you’ve been the coach for a couple years.
“It’s sort of an opportunity to reset things, and so, for the Raptors, they make the big trade getting Kawhi and Danny. For Nick to sometimes start Serge Ibaka at the five, probably was an easier thing to do being a new head coach. For me, that move was Andre Iguodala, moving him to the bench — doing the opposite — those kinds of moves are easier when you take a job because you can present, sort of, a new vision for your group.”
By moving Ibaka to the five, Nurse allowed him to return to the habitat that made him so successful in Oklahoma City. Protect the paint on one end, look to finish inside with duck-ins or off the offensive glass, and splash away from the mid-range. Pascal Siakam’s development is a credit unto himself, but the giant strides he’s made over the course of the season are a tremendous credit to the freedom Nurse has given him to explore his game and consistently up the usage. That takes feel and understanding, something that is recognized by the smartest assembly of players the Raptors have ever put together.
Praised for his offensive acumen and creativity upon his hiring, former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol has gained tremendous respect for what Nurse has done to help yield the fifth-best defence of the regular season and third-best of the playoffs, per Cleaning the Glass.
“[He] allows you freedom to make your reads, but at the same time wants you to be real disciplined about his pillars, especially defensively, and you need those,” Gasol said. “Defensively, you need to be disciplined and tough and have that resilience and he has those things.”
Lowry, the heart and soul of the franchise, knows a leader when he sees one. He is also the one who seems to always know better, which can be a challenge for a higher authority and has proven to be the case in the past. But Nurse has stayed firm on his principles throughout the season without ever shying away from feedback and understanding what his players are comfortable with. That garners respect.
“He’s always been a head coach,” Lowry said at the OVO Athletic Centre Monday. “I think that’s the one thing about him, he’s always been a head coach type, I think he’s always kind of thought that way about himself and he approached the game that way as a head coach.
“Being on the court with players and around the players, it’s a little bit different, but I think the transition from this year is just kind of being there, he’s kind of stayed the same way in the sense of how he’s just laid back and just let’s everything happen but he’s shown his fiery side when he needed to.”
Nurse is coolness personified but never asleep at the wheel. One of the pivotal moments of his season came just before the all-star break when he called out Toronto’s rental superstar before a game against Brooklyn. He wanted to see a higher level of engagement and even motivation after Leonard had scored under 20 points in three of four contests and was shooting just 34.5 percent from the field. On the back of scoring 20 points in 22 straight games, Leonard could have easily perceived it as an unnecessary slight from a rookie NBA head coach.
Instead, the respect the 27-year-old had for Nurse only grew.
“When a coach is like that, you want that motivation,” Leonard told the media after beating the Nets that night. “They can see it. They’re looking in between the lines of the game. Even if you’re going out there and having 20 points and you win, you want a coach that motivates you and tells you what you’re still doing that’s negative on the floor and costing your team. I appreciate him putting that in the air.”
In understanding why this Raptors team is different, the easy answer is Leonard’s heroics and the manner in which he goes about his business. But when injuries got in the way of building some consistency during the regular season, Nurse went with the rhythm of the night. When the likes of VanVleet, Ibaka, Norman Powell and Gasol all went through their struggles and Danny Green continues to go through his, he’s stood right beside them.
When the Raptors trailed by 15 points in Game 6 against the Bucks and looked like they might throw away a golden opportunity on their home floor, Nurse calmly reminded them that they had been there before.
He can because he has.
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