As his team heads to the great unknown to defend their NBA championship, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has given up trying to plot and plan and micromanage his way through a pandemic.
Instead he’s keeping an open mind and planning to roll with punches no one may see coming as the NBA gathers at the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando to complete the 2019-20 regular season and start the playoffs.
The Raptors will be one of the last of 22 teams to move into what the league hopes will be a relatively antiseptic bubble, free from the coronavirus when they take a bus from where they’ve been training in Naples, Fla.
Normally coaches have a working script for almost every minute of pre-season training so as not to waste a precious moment and to set the right tone for what’s to follow.
These aren’t normal times. The Raptors have had their typical pre-season, back on October (and even that involved a side trip to Japan); they’ve had a month of individual workouts after the play was stopped March 11 due to the pandemic and they’ve just completed two weeks in their own mini-bubble in Naples where they’ve been doing individual work but together. Now they have three weeks at Disney World before they play eight so-called seeding games beginning Aug. 1.
“I would say my planning is very lean or [fluid], to be honest with you,” Nurse said on a conference call Tuesday. “I want to see kind of where we are at the first day or so before I kind of say ‘I see where we are at, I see where we are going and now I’m going to have to get down and chart the next week or 10 days out’. And I don’t really know where we are at. I mean I can see individually. I think we look really good, but what will that translate to when we get back to calling plays and running defences and doing some things? Where are we going to need to go from there?”
Nurse is already prepared for some diversions.
Several of his players — not to mention the team’s coaching and support staff — are parents and in the early stages of what could be a minimum of seven weeks away from their families. Nurse himself has two little ones three and under.
So, while a typical training camp environment is designed to leave the outside world behind for a little bit and become immersed in all things basketball, when hoops are all there is going on in the ‘bubble’ some outside world distractions will be welcomed and encouraged.
“For me, I would say that it starts with conversation, when you’re bumping into Fred [VanVleet] or Kyle [Lowry], and you’re asking ’em how are the wife and kids, and what are they doing, and when was the last time you talked to them,” said Nurse. “There’s a lot more of that going on than I would say normally would happen.
“It’s not like we don’t do it normally but there’s a lot more now because we’re all showing pictures and whatever. I just think from my standpoint, it’s another one of those things you’d be more lenient on.
“Like, I don’t know, what’s an example? Well, we’re getting ready to start a meeting and right as that happens, somebody says ‘oh, man, my kid’s FaceTiming me, and you say take it, go out in the hall and take it and we’ll wait for you’ or whatever.
“I think sometimes hooking up with schedules and kids, sometimes when those FaceTime calls come, you’ve gotta take ’em and drop everything you’re doing.”
Nurse can relate.
“Like, when I left, I have a three-year-old kid… he didn’t quite understand how long I’m gonna be gone. I told him I’m gonna coach some games, and he said well I’m gonna wait right here for ya.
“I hope he’s moved from that spot because it’s gonna be a while.”
As far as basketball is concerned Nurse remains bullish on his team, which will carry a 46-18 record into the restart — second-best in the East and third in the NBA — even though it will be four months since his team has played a game or even practised 5-on-5.
Nurse has been in the gym watching his charges go through solo workouts with the aid of the Raptors coaching and development staff and likes what he sees.
“I would imagine with everybody there’ll be a little bit of rhythm adjustment from the game,” he said. “Conditioning, rhythm and remembering sets and all that kind of stuff, that’ll take some time as well.
“But I look, if you walked in the gym this morning and watched them workout you wouldn’t have known they missed two months without touching a ball, I don’t think.”
Leading the way has been Raptors engine Kyle Lowry, the veteran point guard who sets the culture for a team that refuses to take a step back.
“He is looking awesome. I mean like really awesome,” said Nurse. “He is really working hard. He is going at it. He comes into camp always in great shape, full of energy and feisty and all that stuff and he is. He’s going at it. He’s working extremely hard very early in the morning in all facets — his conditioning, his shooting. He’s good. He looks good and his workouts have been excellent.”
Those are the knowns, the things Nurse can rely on as the strangest season in NBA history hits another milestone moment. His team is healthy, his players are prepared and his floor leader looks ready to rock, even as they navigate a new normal without the familiarity of home or family.
Nurse does have one plan in mind when the Raptors take the practice floor for the first time — likely on Saturday.
He’s going to let’em play. It’s been a while.
“I know that I’m sensing they really want to play basketball. I don’t think they want to do drills. So it may be a little different where you drill short, scrimmage long early just to get that feel and then go back and drill longer on things you think you need to do.”
And if there’s a FaceTime call from a wee one? Everyone will adjust.