NEW YORK — There were storylines available for the Toronto Raptors as they started the final week of the season against a team in the Brooklyn Nets that they could face in the first round of the playoffs.
Nick Nurse just wasn’t having any of them.
Would they use the game as an opportunity to scheme against the potential post-season foe? Would they put a particular emphasis on winning? Would they try to send a message?
Only if the message was: we don’t want anyone to get hurt.
The head coach said before the game that his charges would keep things simple.
“We are just going to go out and guard them and see what it looks like,” Nurse said. “So, pretty straight. Vanilla.”
While one of his assistants has already been working on scouting the Nets, and they have been developing defensive coverages for them, those were going to remain in the playoff bag of tricks.
On the Nurse scale of experimentation, which has often been cranked up to 10 this season, the coach dead-panned a prediction for Wednesday: “About a 1.9,” he said.
And so, the Raptors did a lot of normal things: Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam combined for 54 points, Serge Ibaka chipped in 23, and Toronto survived a late flurry of buckets from Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell for a 115-105 win.
The desire to play things straight was understandable. The Raptors will play one of four potential opponents in the first round — Brooklyn, Detroit, Miami or Orlando — and there’s a good chance they won’t know who it is until the season ends next Tuesday.
That means they can’t game-plan much specifically, and since they have known for weeks that the two seed in the East was an almost-certain outcome for them, they haven’t sweated the small stuff for a while now.
“We haven’t really been all that concerned with our seeding or where we are going or who we are playing for 10, 12, 14 games now,” Nurse said. “We’ve tried to not make the results the focus.” The coach said he doesn’t buy the notion that teams need to play a certain way heading into the post-season since that form often doesn’t carry over. He points to the Iowa State Cyclones, from his home state, who blew through the Big 12 tournament, winning it and earning a six seed in the NCAA Tournament. They lost in the first round. “They got hot a week early,” he said.
Nurse said the Raptors would instead use their remaining games — against Charlotte, Miami and Minnesota — to try to polish and fine-tune. Results? I’m paraphrasing here, but: Pffft.
“It’s a crazy time of year now, man,” Nurse said. “The results are all over the place, and I don’t think you want to get too wrapped up in that.”
The most significant development of recent days for the Raptors was the news that Danny Green would not be troubled by the jammed thumb suffered in Sunday’s win over Orlando. “We’ve checked him every way we can check him,” Nurse said. “He’s good.”
This was no doubt welcome news in the Toronto offices, as Green, who leads the NBA in net rating, figures to be a major part of any playoff run. The Raptors knew they were getting an excellent shooter in the summer trade that brought him with Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio, but the head coach enthused about his various traits on Wednesday.
“He’s a real personality,” he said. “Everybody in the building likes him … and everyone in the locker room likes him. He’s a real professional, he’s a real hard worker, he’s smart. So there’s a lot of things there I think he brings that I’m not sure I knew we were getting, right, when we got him.” Nurse added that he’s been “a joy to coach.” I guess so.
The fact that the Washington Wizards fired team president Ernie Grunfeld on Tuesday was not particularly surprising, not when his team made a big step this season from talented-but-underperforming to talented-but-severely-underperforming.
The Wiz were 32-46 heading into Wednesday’s games, and have been eliminated from the playoff race, which was owner Ted Leonsis’s stated reason for punting his president of 16 years.
But the move underscored the drastic change in fortunes for the team in Washington and the one based in Toronto, which met in the first round of the post-season last spring. When the top-seeded Raptors and the eight-seed Wizards battled to a 2-2 draw over the early part of that series, it was easy to see some of the similarities between the two squads. Both were constructed around expensive three-player cores, with Washington actually committed to less money this season for John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter than Toronto owed to DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. Both teams had backcourts that had been to a pile of All-Star games, but both also had a reputation for playoff face-plants. Toronto ended up winning the series in six games, but Washington had fourth-quarter leads in both of the final two games. It was uncomfortably close for a one-versus-eight matchup, which probably had as much to do with Masai Ujiri’s decision to shake things up as did the Raptors running headlong into LeBron James again in the second round. A couple of shots here and there, and the Wiz might well have won it.
Things have changed. Wall has a giant contract extension that kicks in next season, and while it was already looking like a bad contract, he suffered two — yes, two — season-ending leg injuries this year that were particularly grim for a player whose game is built on athleticism. Beal has been great, but perhaps too great, as if he makes it on to an All-NBA team he will be eligible for the same type of “supermax” extension that has turned into such an anchor with Wall. Porter was traded in February. The coverage from Washington after the Grunfeld firing was all about how his replacement, whoever it is, has almost nothing to work with for a rebuild.
Washington may have fought Toronto to almost a draw in 2018, but you’d have a hard time finding comparisons between them a year later.