TORONTO – We’d all be wise to embrace our second chances, if-and-when they arrive, but for Jay Triano, his second opportunity to be an NBA coach required some serious thought.
To begin with, Triano has loved his life as a lead assistant coach since he was fired as the head man for the Toronto Raptors following the 2010-11 season, paving the way for the hiring of Dwane Casey, who has turned into a fixture in his seventh year with the Raptors.
Being a head coach for then-Raptors president Bryan Colangelo meant spending a lot of time on things that didn’t have much to do with basketball. It was stuff he didn’t believe essential to job, that he didn’t enjoy.
“Meet with the media. Meet with the season-ticket holders and suite holders. Meet with the GM. Talk to agents. I would be thinking, ‘It’s 9 p.m., I need to start getting ready for the Lakers tomorrow.’ All my assistants had to do was coach, and I was envious,” he said to me once.
“I think I did well at the other things, but at the same time, I love the game. Being an assistant, it’s all basketball all the time. I love the purity of it.”
Moving over one seat means more responsibility, more visibility and less of doing what he loves most: breaking down film, figuring out a game plan or developing close relationships with players as you help them unlock their dreams.
Second, the opportunity was coming due to less-than-ideal circumstances:
Former Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson, the man who hand picked him to be his right-hand man in the desert, was fired three games into the season after his club gave up an average of 129 points a game to start the season.
When Suns management approached him about taking over, there was some hesitation. Some survivors’ guilt. He wanted to talk to Watson first.
When his old boss gave him his blessing, the Canadian men’s national team head coach found himself as the NBA’s only Canadian head coach for the second time.
Tuesday night he arrived at Air Canada Centre as the visiting head coach for the first time. His team was not the favourite and it played out as predicted as the Raptors led early and kept the Suns at arm’s length all night in a 126-113 win.
The Suns (9-17) were facing a the dreaded ‘schedule loss’ – the second night of a back-to-back, the third game in four nights and the last of a six-game road trip – while taking on the rested and ready Raptors.
Oddsmakers had the Raptors as 14-point favourites and Toronto (15-7 and 9-1 at home) was flirting with that line all night as they improved to 3-0 on their recent homestand and won for the fourth straight time before they head out on a four-game road trip against some of the Western Conference’s weaker sides.
The Raptors had seven players in double figures, counted 29 assists and were led by Kyle Lowry, who finished with 20 points and 10 assists, while DeMar DeRozan had 20 points, eight rebounds and seven dimes.
Triano’s goals were modest as he tries to instill a wining culture on a young roster that hasn’t won before and isn’t ready to win yet.
“The nights we’ve struggled have been back-to-backs when we’ve been physically and mentally a bit tired,” said Triano. “Where is our mental toughness going to be? How are we going to be able to fight through back-to-backs and how fast as a player are you going to learn to fight through that.
“That’s the talks that we’ve had and we haven’t handled too well at this point, so that’s a goal. Tonight’s a big test for us. … How are you going to respond?”
They responded well – although they lost second-year scoring phenom Devin Booker to a left adductor injury late in the final quarter. The Raptors pushed their lead to 19 early in the fourth quarter, but the Suns were able to get it into single digits midway through the period before the Raptors pushed back. The Suns were at least able to beat the spread.
Triano has responded well to his opportunity, even if he wasn’t sure he wanted it. But the second time around he’s been more confident in asserting what he expects, about creating the kind of culture he believes in and says he’s had support from management and ownership to instill the structure a young team requires. It’s bought him the credibility you need in an NBA locker room.
“Where he’s made his mark on this team is from an accountability standpoint,” said Suns forward Jared Dudley, one of the Suns few veterans in his 11th NBA season. “If you’re not playing good enough, if you’re not playing the way he wants you to play, you’re coming out where I don’t think we had that before.”
It’s clear Triano is more comfortable in his skin. Coaching in his adopted hometown, for his country’s only NBA team, the tension at times was evident, particularly in his final season when the Raptors were rebuilding and the losses were mounting.
He came up as a fun-loving assistant who would stay after practice coming up with shooting games to keep things fresh. DeRozan raves about his old coach’s ability to hit trick shots from all over the gym, for being fun to work with and for letting him build the confidence required to play freely.
But Triano acknowledges he left behind that aspect of himself as a head coach.
He came to the realization in four years as the lead assistant for Terry Stotts with the Portland Trail Blazers before joining the Suns as an assistant prior to the 2016-17 season. Triano said Stotts would ask him over and over again what he did differently as a head coach, what he regretted the first time around.
“I think I changed,” Triano said he told him.
“I don’t think I was the same person [when he was head coach of the Raptors],” he said. “Four years in Portland and Terry was really good, really valuable for me. Working with a coach who was really good, really even-keeled and so knowledgeable about the game.”
Triano said when he got the Suns top job Stotts called and gave him only once piece of advice.
“He called me a told me don’t change this time. Have fun.”
For Triano his new role with the Suns is another chance to bring to the job what he does best and he’s taking the opportunity and running with it.