PHILADELPHIA, — When Nick Nurse was hired to coach the Raptors 11 months ago, he talked with great optimism and excitement about his first opportunity as an NBA coach.
He talked proudly of his relationship with Jonas Valanciunas and the annual trips he took to Lithuania. He talked about the growth of OG Anunoby. He talked about the furthering the development of Norm Powell and Delon Wright.
And he spoke so highly of DeMar DeRozan, his prized scorer, how nice it was to have a veteran presence as an enabler for a rookie head coach. He also talked about being an original thinker, someone not afraid of doing the unconventional, someone inclined to shake some trees.
That was Nurse’s first day on the job. The first season is rarely easy for any professional coach. It may be even more difficult in the NBA, where the players are the show and the coaches are easily expendable. There was pressure with the hire like there is with any hire, but not so enormous you-have-to-win-a-championship pressure.
The Raptors didn’t know then that LeBron James was heading West for sure. They didn’t know for certain that their franchise roadblock was moving and, for that day, anyhow, the Raptors roster was good enough to go places. Or that’s what Masai Ujiri said publicly, after Dwane Casey was fired after winning 59 games.
So here we are today, 11 months later, and Nurse’s favourite Raptor, Valanciunas, is in Memphis. And Kawhi Leonard — and, really, who saw that coming? — is in Toronto. And Anunoby didn’t have a great season before his appendix blew up his post-season. And DeRozan was dealt in only a semi-popular trade then, with the world not realizing what Kawhi was capable of being as a team changer.
Suddenly, Nurse’s job changed and became more difficult. The pressure mounted for this one-year — or is it longer? — journey. That’s a lot to ask of any coach. Even more to ask of a first-year coach, who seems to be handling it well.
It wasn’t just the addition of Leonard and all the complications of load management that made Nurse’s first season somewhat challenging. It was, by his choice, really, and by circumstances, a starting lineup that bounced around like a penny stock. The lineups changed game to game. The health of Kyle Lowry and his load was important. Managing Leonard’s time was taken out of Nurse’s hands, which for a coach makes life even more difficult.
Coaches, by nature, are control freaks. They want to know what they can do with their lineup, when they can do it, how they can do it. So many nights this NBA season, Nurse didn’t know what his lineup would be, who could play, who was healthy enough to play, how he would make it work.
The Raptors won the second-most games in the NBA with a rotation that truly was in rotation. But the job Nurse signed up for in June after returning from a Rolling Stones concert in England — and that was the first thing to admire about Nurse, his taste in music — is not the job he is doing right now.
Kawhi Leonard is tearing up the NBA. The Raptors’ starting lineup features four players who didn’t start a year ago. Marc Gasol at centre instead of Valanciunas or, earlier this season, Serge Ibaka. Danny Green at shooting guard. Pascal Siakam, who grabbed the starting spot from Anunoby and may never give it back. Anunoby went in one direction in his second season, Siakam became near all-star in his third.
The scoring options when Nurse was hired were (1) DeRozan; (2) Lowry; (3) Valanciunas. That’s what he signed up for. Now it’s (1) Leonard; (2) Siakam; (3) fill in the blanks from night to night, from Lowry to Green to Ibaka and, if Gasol ever considered shooting more, he would be in that mix, too.
Now here is Nurse, one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals. Five wins away — if that’s possible — from the NBA championship round. And how do you learn about coaches in almost any sport? What do they do in the playoffs? How do they prepare their teams? How do they adjust? How do they work their rotations and their matchups?
The Raptors were blitzed in Game 3 by the Philadelphia 76ers and their performance was grim and their prospects dimmed even more so when Siakam was hurt. Nurse shrunk his bench, played size against size in the series, put the ball in Leonard’s giant hands, and altered his lineup, playing Gasol and Ibaka together, instead of apart.
Nurse made the right adjustments. It was the Sixers beaten in Game 4, blown out in Game 5. Now the tough part comes, closing out any series — on the road.
The education of Nick Nurse grows with each passing playoff day. This wasn’t what he signed up for last June, but this is better and faster than he might have imagined.
Now, after all those years coaching in outposts nobody paid attention to, he’s building his own reputation. And fast.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019