Dallas — Nick Nurse was hired for his first NBA head-coaching job – in part – because he was open-minded and willing to experiment; because he exuded confidence when he acknowledged that the regular season was not a do-or-die struggle with every game carrying the same weight, but rather an opportunity for a good team to find out what it might take to be great.
But the plan was always to arrive at a place where most of the theories had been tested, re-tested, calibrated and measured in time for the playoffs when things got real.
Well, after 51 games Nurse has reached the point where he feels like it’s time for the questions to get answered; the experiments to wrap up. His players wouldn’t mind it either.
Nurse’s team, the Toronto Raptors, have had a pretty smooth ride through 51 regular season games if their 36-15 record – second in the East and second in the NBA overall – is any indication.
But there are some fissures showing. While Nurse initially juggled his rotation early simply as a means to get a look at different players in different roles, once the injury bug hit it became a necessity – the Raptors have used 14 starting lineups with their second-unit being equally as jumbled as a result.
Now with the team slowly returning to health (although starting shooting guard Danny Green missed the team’s workout to get testing done on his left hand after hurting it against Houston) — even as they have dropped consecutive games on their three-game road trip that winds up against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday night — Nurse sounded like a coach who wants his players to provide him with some clarity around who really wants to be part of what will be a very competitive rotation.
In losses to Indiana on Wednesday and Houston on Friday, Toronto fell behind by double figures early and was unable to complete comebacks against quality opponents that were clearly taking the Raptors seriously as visitors.
After a long video and practice session Saturday afternoon, it was clear Nurse has seen about enough of that.
“It would be really nice to figure out exactly who is going to be in there. How we’re going to do it. Who is going to play where, minutes, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “The rotations. I’m sure we’re going to have some more guys in and out. But, yeah, we got to now know: who is going to play as tough as we need them to play? Who is going to execute like we need them to execute? We need to execute like we’re capable of. Close games or not. At both ends of the floor.”
They ended up having a chance to win against Houston on the final possession, but there were more things to be concerned about than celebrate.
With Kawhi Leonard back after missing four games due to ‘load management’ the Raptors were as close to full health as they’ve been in months, with only Jonas Valanciunas (thumb) still out.
But Toronto turned the ball over 21 times, was almost run out of the building in the first half and when they did execute a near miracle comeback after being down 19 with 5:35 to play, botched the final possession by generating only a difficult, fall away three by Leonard.
With the rotation finally crowded Delon Wright was squeezed out, not seeing a minute.
According to Nurse, the message going forward is simple — those that want to play will prove it.
“You can’t play everybody,” he said. “And like I said, it’s the guys, for me, that are going to bring it — and Delon’s still included in that group [that will play]. There’s still some opportunity for guys to prove they are going to bring it, defend the way we want. Execute the game plan the way that we want. Play on the balls of their feet on offence and not on their heels. Step into shots, take ‘em and make ‘em.
Play with some serious aggression, passion and commitment to being in a rotation of a really, really good team.”
The flipside is that the players themselves are looking for some certainty as the season’s homestretch comes into view.
“Good bad or otherwise sometimes it’s as simple as finding out who’s not going to play, who’s the odd man out,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who has been flipping back and forth between starting and anchoring the second unit depending on who is or isn’t in the lineup. “We got so many guys, so much talent, what are the minutes going to be? What are the rotations going to be? Not that it’s set in stone but a little more continuity would help and I think we’ll be able to find that here in the next month-and-a-half, two months.”
But certainty and health only matter if it’s augmented by urgency and effort. Since the Raptors started 20-4, they are just 16-11 – respectable but hardly overwhelming. There are reasons – a compressed December schedule, in particular, injuries certainly.
But could that early success have taken the edge off? Bred some complacency?
“Look, we’ve been a top team for a while, obviously we haven’t won a championship, so it’s not complacency but there’s some of that where we know [we can flip a switch] like [Friday] — as bad as we played we were right there with a chance to win the game,” said VanVleet.
“Understanding that you always have a shot to win can – like I said – maybe [cause you] to have less urgency but it’s something we have clean up … you get caught going through the motions sometimes but I think we got to turn it on and if there is a switch that we’re playing around with it’s time to turn it on about now.”
The Raptors start against the Rocket was a case in point – much of the game was actually. Toronto was well behind early and it wasn’t because James Harden was giving it to them. It was role players, the likes of Kenneth Faried, Austin Rivers and PJ Tucker that brought more effort and energized the Toyota Center crowd in the process.
That’s got to change beginning Sunday night against Dallas, as far as the Raptors are concerned.
“I think in the beginning [against Houston] we just lacked effort. Period,” said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam. “I think that doesn’t have to do with rotation or who was playing with who. It’s just about us playing with more energy on defence, rebounding the basketball. Just showing more like we wanted to play. We were just flat, to be honest. It just comes down to effort.
“We’ve got to find our groove. We’ve got to find what works for us.”
Nurse will be looking for something early against Dallas, something that wasn’t there against Houston or Indiana or on too many other occasions lately – remember San Antonio?
“[We] know that that over these 82 games, you’re just not going to have that super fire, that super spark every time,” said Nurse. “Well, we’ve been through [51 games] now and we should absolutely know that that [Friday’s game] was going to be one of those and we should absolutely know that most of them are going to be that way now.… we’ve now had our fire lit a few times.
“We’ve exhausted those so I’m going to go home and play The Doors today, ‘Come on Baby light my fire’.”
They better find a way, a spark, or the Raptors could end up burned.