OAKLAND — Bobby Webster knew something was different, he just wasn’t sure what.
One possession passed, then another.
Was that? No. It couldn’t be.
Why yes, yes it was.
Webster, the Toronto Raptors general manager, almost had to laugh.
When he and team president Masai Ujiri hired Nick Nurse, they hoped they were getting a coach who would take risks and be bold. It was how he’d made his name working his way up through the minor leagues and as an NBA assistant.
And over the course of a long season Nurse had long ago won his bosses over. The scrutiny that comes with being a head coach in the NBA hadn’t curbed his willingness to take a chance, to look a bit silly sometimes.
But even for Nurse this was outside the box.
The Raptors were playing a gimmicky middle school defence to try and contain the greatest shooter of all time and change the momentum of an NBA Finals game.
And it almost worked.
“It took me a couple of times down to figure it out,” said Webster. “You knew they were in some kind of zone and finally you realized what they were doing with Steph. You’re so into the game at those moments, but you had a little chuckle that in the NBA Finals someone’s doing a box-and-one.”
It’s what the Raptors hired him to do — not necessarily come up with a paint-by-numbers masterpiece but figure out how to win games by any means necessary.
If it means colouring outside the lines?
So be it.
“I know, everybody’s making fun of me for it, right?” said Nurse. “[But] first of all, your players have to have some faith in it. I got a sense of, from them, that they were good with it in the timeout … Kyle [Lowry] was kind of the one that said, ‘Yeah, man, that will work, let’s go.’
“That kind of lets you, I don’t know, share the responsibility a little bit. We all are on the same page and we leave the huddle and we’re all good with it. So that helps.”
The tactic itself doesn’t matter. It’s the presence of mind to think of it and the conviction to try it and have their players buy into it in the heat of battle.
But still, box-and-one?
“Everyone has played it or played against it at some point in their illustrious or not illustrious basketball career, so it was cool to see,” said Webster. “But that’s part of what makes Nick, Nick and part of what we love about him.
“You saw it throughout the year, the different rotations, the different styles of play and that’s just another small example of the many things he can bring to the game.”
It’s a gimmick defence that gets used in middle school or high school when one player is so far above his teammates in ability that he gets shadowed by one defender, with or without the ball. His four teammates play a zone — doubling the object player whenever he comes near. The bet is the rest of the team aren’t good enough to take advantage.
The only reason it worked in Game 2 was because Klay Thompson left the Warriors in the fourth quarter with a strained hamstring.
Thompson is questionable for Game 3 Wednesday night although he certainly sounds like he’s going to make every effort to play. He’s never missed a playoff game in his career and has sat out just 37 games in eight professional seasons.
It’s just another variable Nurse will need to figure out in a series where the parts are always moving. What role will DeMarcus Cousins have? When will Kevin Durant be back? Is Thompson in the lineup or not?
If things line up for Toronto and Thompson is out for Game 3 (Durant has already been ruled out) it can only be interpreted as a huge opportunity for Toronto to get a rare road playoff win at Oracle Arena and retake the series lead.
But in any case it’s not likely the Raptors will adopt a box-and-one as their base defence, though with Nurse, anything is possible.
It’s almost the point.
“[We] never practised that ever. I don’t think I’ve ever run a box-and-one in my life, I’m going to be honest with you,” said Lowry. “He literally drew Fred — he said ‘This is Steph, you have Steph.’ He put me, Kawhi, Pascal and Marc on the board in spots and said, ‘Stand there.’ So, I mean, it was just like, play defence.
“And, listen, I don’t make too much of it because it is what it is with our head coach. He wanted us to do that; that’s what we did. You can always say this about it or that about it. You can laugh at it. You could clown it. It is what it is … [But] nothing Nick does surprises me now on the on the court as a coach. It doesn’t surprise me. That one kind of caught me off guard, but, yeah, it was innovative.”
At the highest levels of the game, a box-and-one isn’t supposed to work as everyone on an NBA floor is supposed to be good enough to make teams pay for lapses in coverage, and most are. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has been in the NBA in some capacity since 1989 and said he’d never seen it before.
It’s easily interpreted as an insult to the other four offensive players on the floor.
That’s why Warriors star Steph Curry called it ‘janky’ moments after he had (barely) eluded two Raptors defenders, moved the ball and watched a wide-open Andre Iguodala knock down the game-deciding three at the end of Game 2.
“That’s a little Southern, North Carolina slang that I probably just pulled out of my back pocket,” Curry said on Tuesday as the Raptors and Warriors practised ahead of Game 3. “It sounds right. I don’t really know what the true definition is.
“It was obviously innovative and unexpected in terms of defence you haven’t seen in a while … Probably last time I saw it was when I had a [Davidson] Wildcat jersey on.”
The Raptors lost the game but Nurse won the bet as the Warriors went 5:33 without scoring before Iguodala’s big three. Had the Raptors mustered more than eight points over the same stretch they might have completed the comeback and been up 2-0 heading into Game 3.
But the willingness of Nurse to try something so unusual says a lot more about him than the outcome does. The playoffs are a crucible and the heat and the light only get brighter the farther along you go.
The Raptors are pretty far right now — tied 1-1 in their first NBA Finals with one the greatest teams in NBA history — and so the heat and the light are cranked up to about 11.
That was one of the questions that lingered over the Raptors as they embarked on this season under the guidance of a first-year NBA head coach who was hired in part for his willingness to experiment, to fail.
Would he remain the bright, innovative mind that the Raptors thought they were getting when they hired him? Or would the pressure and the scrutiny and the expectations get to him, as it does to so many others?
One the eve of his NBA debut, Nurse told a story about some advice one his mentors — his college coach Eldon Miller — had shared with him.
“You want to know what it’s all about?” Nurse said his old coach asked him.
“Playing to win without fear,” Miller replied.
His old coach would be proud. Even on the brightest stage, Nurse has got that part figured out.