Nick Nurse wasn’t anyone’s first choice to replace Dwane Casey, just as Cito Gaston wasn’t Pat Gillick’s first choice when Jimy Williams was fired as Toronto Blue Jays manager.
Soon, Nurse will like Gaston be wearing a championship ring that says it doesn’t matter; that it’s moot whether it really was Doc Rivers or Mike Budenholzer who were Masai Ujiri’s preferred options to be Dwane Casey’s replacement. History, after all, gets written by the winners – and this morning, it is Nurse holding the pen. In one magical post-season run he has beaten some of the game’s most fancied coaches: Steve Clifford of the Orlando Magic, Brett Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers, Budenholzer of the Milwaukee Bucks and now Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors. The last three of that group are part of the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, with Kerr’s roots also reaching into Phil Jackson’s group.
Nurse’s career has been way more DIY. Europe. The G-League. Summer League. He didn’t play in the NBA; didn’t play in a big-time college. He grew up in Carroll, Iowa and went to the University of Northern Iowa, and for all his world travelling remains very much a mid-western guy. Jeff Horner, a fellow Iowan who played for Nurse in the G League with the Iowa Energy and is now head coach at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, says that explains Nurse’s aversion to grandiose gestures and statements. I mean, think about: we knew Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo liked to play the bongos within days of his hiring. Nurse? Nobody knew much about the guitar he took on the road until all those photographs of him walking off the charter with a guitar case slung over his back. Nobody knew his wife was expecting until Michael Grange congratulated him at a news conference.
Oh yeah: and that now-infamous box-and-one the Raptors trotted out in Game 2 of the Finals? What the hell was up with that?
“I laughed when I saw that, and the triangle and two he used the other night as well,” Horner said Thursday in an interview on my show on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “The only thing I could think of was: ‘Man, that’s some Iowa stuff.’ That’s what makes him such a great coach. He’s not afraid to do some things.’”
Gaston’s back-to-back World Series wins removed some of the sting from the knowledge that it was only because New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wouldn’t let Lou Piniella leave the broadcast booth that he ended up overseeing the Blue Jays. Like Nurse, who became Casey’s lead offensive assistant after joining his staff in the summer of 2013, Gaston was already in place as the Blue Jays’ hitting coach when the decision was made to fire Williams.
Still, even with those back to back titles, there was then and remains now a tinge of bitterness to Gaston’s career because the man himself knows there remains a school of thought that he had a particularly benign managing style created by the knowledge that for many years he had a team of time-tested veterans upon which he could rely.
It was a laughingly non-sensical suggestion, right up there with the ‘Joe Torre did nothing but collect World Series rings’ argument that overlooks the unique demands placed on any head coach or manager of a veteran team expected to win a title. The soccer folks would call it “man management.”
Nurse, of course, inherited a team that was among the league’s best but just couldn’t beat LeBron James in the post-season. By the time training camp started it had also added Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and subtracted DeMar DeRozan. Ujiri had gone all-in on winning a title; Nurse had zero margin for error. In the meantime, he had to manage Leonard’s workload and figure out what to do with a bench that had become a tire fire due to the elevation of Pascal Siakam into a starters job, the trade of Jakob Poeltl, injuries and personal issues that took OG Anunoby out of the equation and a subsequent trade that sent Delon Wright and Jonas Valanciunas to the Memphis Grizzlies. It was the de-mobbing of the Bench Mob.
“Sometimes, when you’re dealing with pressure and there’s games coming every other day, where you’re thinking on the fly, thinking during the games, the adjustments to make … being a first-year head coach, I think he’s done remarkably well,” Ujiri said of Nurse after the Raptors eliminated the Bucks. “Nick has never been one to complain. Never.”
The man he replaced had a special place in the hearts of Toronto sports fans. Casey was the guy who got it, who brought an element of stability to a city that had been knifed in the back by Blue Jays manager John Farrell, who left for his dream job as manager of the Boston Red Sox, and had to put up with a pair of Captain Bligh’s – Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle – running the Maple Leafs.
Casey had the gravitas and world-awareness of an African-American man of his age, the product of a lifetime of slights and the resulting nimbleness needed to pick his way through all the pain. He embraced and became a salesman for the openness he saw in Canadian society at a time when Donald Trump was beginning to unleash the worst of America, and it’s never a bad thing to play to the crowd a bit, even though Canada is hardly without its own shameful past.
Casey’s firing was not universally popular (and, yes, I’m putting my hand up in the air, here.) But Ujiri clearly knew what he was doing. The timing stunk: it was James more than anybody who was responsible for the Raptors hitting a wall every post-season. He was leaving for the Los Angeles Lakers as a free-agent. Leonard was the kind of defensive monster that a defensive guru like Casey would have loved to coach. Oh yeah: Casey was also coming off being named Coach of the Year. Considering all the currency Casey had in the game, you have to wonder how many coaches would have avoided the gig.
Lowry said Nurse ripped into the team after they lost the first game of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic. It worked. Since then it’s been less about mental gymnastics than coaching acumen: going big against the Philadelphia 76ers changed the tone of that series; putting Leonard on Giannis Antetokounmpo was a talking point in the Eastern Final win over the Milwaukee Bucks. Keeping faith with Green and Van Vleet has paid off. Hell, high school coaches everywhere were reduced to tears when they saw Nurse bring out the box-and-one. The Raptors lost … but the Warriors went five minutes without a bucket, even though Nurse essentially had to speak to each player in the timeout about their responsibilities, and we all learned the meaning of the word ‘janky,’ which is how Steph Curry described some of the Raptors defences.
Never mind the cojones; think about the presence of mind it takes to do that. No wonder that when Lowry acknowledged that this was a more mature group than last year’s team, he suggested Nurse’s personality had a lot to do with that, as did the stoney-faced resolve of Leonard.
Earlier in the series, somebody asked Nurse a question about Lowry’s tendency to help off the strong corner, which led to drawn charges but also led to open threes. Did Lowry have the freedom to make that call himself? Did he have rules against that for other Raptors players?
“I don’t know if they’re rules,” Nurse said. “They’re ideas. They’re ideas, yeah.”
Everybody talks about adjustments; every coach in every series in every sport. “But it’s a tricky thing in the playoffs,” he said. “You have to fix things and change things and change matchups and rotations and all those things because, I don’t know, I just feel that you have to. If you don’t, then you’re going to be making them after a loss.”
Sports Illustrated’s Jake Fischer dug deep into Nurse’s past to find out what might be in store for the Raptors. Typical is a story that Sacramento Kings assistant coach Bryan Gates relayed to Fischer: Nurse, who crossed paths with him during Nurse’s third trip to Long Beach, Calif., for the NBA Summer League after Nurse tried and failed on two previous occasions to get any job at all, convinced Gates to take him on as an unpaid assistant with the Oklahoma City Storm of the United States Basketball League. The two shared an apartment and spent long nights “trying to solve all of basketball’s problems,” in Gates’ words. One of Nurse’s answers? Get front court players to dribble up the court after defensive rebounds, instead of looking for a guard, which was not exactly de rigueur back then.
“I always felt like he was two steps ahead of everybody offensively,” said Gates.
And so once again a rookie head coach has won an NBA title – three others in the modern era in addition to Nurse: Kerr, Tyronne Lue and Paul Westhead; John Kundla of the 1949 Minneapolis Lakers, Edward Gottlieb of the 1946 Philadelphia Warriors and George Senesky of the 1955-56 Warriors. Number two or number three on the pecking order for Ujiri? Nick Nurse need not worry. Like Cito Gaston, he was very much the right man at the right time.