Nick Nurse has brought calm to Raptors, but now real test awaits

Kyle Lowry, Coach Nurse and Fred VanVleet discuss what challenges they face in first round opponent, Orlando Magic, and why they got to watch out for old teammate Terrence Ross.

Nick Nurse doesn’t do exasperated. He can barely muster grumpy. He’s been a professional basketball coach for more than half his life, but his eyes don’t have the requisite small bags of coal underneath them. He has all his own hair. It’s not grey. Rather than a ragged coach’s rasp, his voice remains discernible after an 82-game schedule.

He somehow makes coaching seem fun. The Toronto Raptors finished second in the NBA in wins, but Nurse undoubtedly led the league in giggles.

He inherited a veteran team with high expectations and where the locker room sheriff is the self-styled curmudgeon Kyle Lowry, who once said he would never want to get into coaching because it would mean having to deal with someone as headstrong as he is.

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And yet Nurse has come out the other side with a nodding endorsement from his point guard, who has tested wills like he tests defences.

“I think just his demeanour,” Lowry said when asked what has impressed him about Nurse in his first year as an NBA head coach after five years as Dwane Casey’s assistant. “He’s kind of been like, ‘Hey, we’ll come in, get our work in, go about our business.’ Get in, get out, do this, figure it out as we go. I think that’s been the difference. I think he’s been very solid on knowing what he’s capable of doing and what we’re capable of doing as a team and not forcing anything.”

Nurse came to training camp in Burnaby, B.C. playing D.J. – he debuted with ‘September’ by Earth Wind & Fire – and handing out dollar-store wrestling belts to the winners of various in-house competitions, bringing out his millionaire campers’ inner 12-year-old.

He declared before he coached his first NBA game that wins, losses and seeding – the currency of the regular season – didn’t matter. From his first moments in a job where the details and pace and grinding routine can swallow men whole, he preached big picture and process.

It all sounded great, but as Mike Tyson said when he was in his terrifying prime “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Veteran shooting guard Danny Green admits he was curious how his new coach would fare over the course of a long NBA season, when everyone takes their best shot. Colour him impressed.

“You would think that sometimes panicking would happen,” said Green, whose previous coach, San Antonio Spurs bench boss Gregg Popovich, started the season leading Nurse in regular-season wins 1,197-0. “But he kept it pretty light for most of the year. Very confident and poised and trusted everything that we were doing, that he was doing, would work out OK.”

It has worked out better than OK, even though the Raptors had talent but almost no continuity. When a family emergency pulled OG Anunoby away from the team in training camp, it was the beginning of a nearly unprecedented string of lineup disruptions that was the running theme of the season. Lowry is the only returning starter from the team that finished with a franchise-record 59 wins a year ago. Nurse has drawn up 22 different starting lineups.

Through it all, Nurse has projected a sense of calm and cool, and – for the most part – kept his.

“I just believed that’s what our team needed, from being around here for a while,” Nurse told Sportsnet. “I just think that instead of worrying so much, let’s be confident. Not be over-confident or lazy or any of those things, but let’s have a high level of professionalism, performance and believe we can do the job.”

It hasn’t been without moments. As Nurse likes to say, it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. Every season has inflection points, where the fissures can begin to show or a sense of purpose can be cemented together.

Nurse can name a couple. The obvious one was the Raptors’ no-show against the Spurs in Kawhi Leonard’s return to San Antonio on Jan. 3. Afterwards, Fred VanVleet held up a laundry list of issues: “Me, just speaking honestly, I just want us to have more discipline,” the third-year point guard said. “Whether that’s following the game plan, discipline offensively, running plays, shot discipline, defensive discipline, there’s a lot of things where we’re making a lot of errors that we can’t afford to make.

Said Green: “There are things that we probably need to nip in the bud soon.”

A long film session followed. Nurse’s point of emphasis? If the team won’t follow the game plan, how can they judge if it’s worthy or not?

“My thing is I don’t know if this call is right or that coverage is right or this play call is right, but let’s go out of the timeout on the same page and find out,” said Nurse.

“That was my big bone of contention then, but they snapped out of it and understood and agreed with me.”

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The Raptors won on the road in Milwaukee on Jan. 5, the first of five straight. Crisis averted.

A less confident coach might be hesitant to stand in front of a dressing room of veterans and acknowledge he doesn’t have all the answers, but to Nurse it’s just being honest.

“I can only be myself and I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘Listen, this is the only way it can be done,’” he says. “I know there are several ways to do it, so if you’re trying to sell that this is the one and only thing, then you’re already going into the BS pile a little bit.”

Later in January, it was a marginal effort in a loss at home to the Bucks that got Nurse fired up.

“I don’t think there were ever any ‘world is closing in’ moments,” Nurse says. “There were some tough moments, but not a lot. There were some moments where I was really pissed off at them and I let them know it … but the main thing is how are you going to respond out of them? That’s your worry as a head coach: Are you going to go in there, give them everything you’ve got and are they going to respond?”

Once more his club took the hint and ripped off a seven-game win streak and nine of their next 10.

“They cared man. Their care level was up, their professionalism was way up,” said Nurse. “I think their demeanour was calming to me and it worked out OK that way, so far.”

Nurse ramped up his intensity and expectations as the season wore on, even as the turnover within his roster kept going.

“About halfway through, December or January, he started being a little more of a jerk, as a coach should, but not much,” said VanVleet. “When things can go certain ways, a lot of people can panic and it’s easy for coaches to panic with the amount of pressure they’re under but from my viewpoint, he’s been pretty good all year.”

What does a Nurse flip out look like?

“He gets really red in the face, as you can imagine,” said VanVleet. “His hair flips around a little bit. His voice starts to crack a little bit. He’s only got about five minutes of yelling in him before his voice goes out. So, maybe that’s why he doesn’t yell a lot, because his voice goes pretty fast.”

But those days are gone now. Nurse’s 82-game rehearsal is over and beginning Saturday it will all count. Playoff basketball is speed chess; adjustments have to be made rapid-fire, almost possession-by-possession. Momentum can be lost with one poor match-up choice; the balance of series can tip.

More than the easy-going attitude and the fresh voice, Nurse was hired to replace Casey in part because he was deemed to give the Raptors a better chance in the hand-to-hand combat of playoff coaching.

Nurse relishes it. After nearly 30 years working mainly in basketball’s minor leagues, breaking down NBA games on VHS tapes and drawing up after timeout scenarios on napkins, he’s on the big stage now.

“I know it’s my first shot in the NBA but I’ve been in a lot of playoff series,” he says. “And I feel good about being able to read the game and then feel what the next one might be like and the one after that against the same team.

“It doesn’t get any better than this as a coach.”

If he can help this version of the Raptors get to where they want to go by navigating the post-season storms as calmly as he did the regular season, Nurse won’t be the only one laughing come June.

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