Nurse deserves credit for leading Raptors burdened with expectations

Nick Nurse talks about Kawhi Leonard taking control for the game winner and what it was like coaching him during his first season with the Toronto Raptors. Courtesy: NBA/TNT

We need to talk about Nick Nurse. Because … well, we really haven’t had to have that discussion, have we?

You might think that the danger after something as dramatic as Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 winner against the Philadelphia 76ers is a false sense of fulfilment creeping in. I mean, I’m as guilty as anybody in feeling that Sunday’s heroics have made everything worthwhile to this point – all the heartbreak, crap officiating, knifing in the back, pre-We The North stuff and, yes, even Andre Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu.

But let’s put ourselves in Nurse’s shoes for a moment, because he more than anybody could be facing a career-defining moment in this upcoming Eastern Conference Finals.

Let’s face it: the story is that Nurse wouldn’t be leading the Toronto Raptors if Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer hadn’t turned down the position when it was offered to him by president Masai Ujiri shortly after Dwane Casey was named Coach of the Year.

Maybe at some point during this series we’ll find out whether the manner in which the popular Casey was dispatched had anything to do with Budenholzer’s decision. But in the meantime, let’s think about Nurse: a first-year head coach who knew his season would be judged a flop if his team didn’t make the Eastern Conference Finals.

Wrap your head around that pressure. Add in that he was taking over a team led by a player without a contract for next season, who’d soured while playing for a franchise and a coach considered to be among the league’s elite and who would need lots of TLC and load management.

It’s also a team full of players who had experienced their share of recent heartbreak. History weighed heavily on these guys without even having to go back to Vince Carter’s 2001 miss in Philly.

I think there’s a tendency at times to overemphasize coaching. Most of the times, it seems to me it comes down to being able to use your timeouts to manage other teams’ runs and make sure your best players are on the court as long as possible without minimizing their effectiveness. Look at what 76ers coach Brett Brown did Sunday: calling a timeout 2:32 into the third quarter after a Marc Gasol driving floater made it 50-41 for the Raptors. The Sixers promptly went on a 16-0 run.

Nurse’s big move came earlier in the series when he found some joy in a big lineup with Serge Ibaka and Gasol, and coached the final three games with what amounted to a seven-man rotation. His ballsiest adjustment might have been leaving Danny Green and his length on the bench for the entire fourth quarter. Green later lauded Nurse for the decision to go with Ibaka, calling it a major point in the series.

Yeah, there was some talk about Leonard’s minutes after that Game 1 loss in the Orlando series, and Nurse owned up to it – acting differently than the other guy in this city who was in the playoffs at the same time. That we didn’t have much to say about Nick Nurse after that was all to the good. But that doesn’t mean we can’t give him his due, now.


They’re red-faced on the red side of Manchester this morning … wondering whether a new voice will step to the forefront on the Toronto Blue Jays staff … The Tao of Nick … paging OG Anunoby …. Would whoever stole the “Bench Mob” kindly return it to Scotiabank Arena …

• If the Blue Jays continue to have offensive difficulty, I wonder if bench coach Dave Hudgens – the Houston Astros hitting coach before coming over here – becomes more and more of a voice along with young hitting coach Guillermo Martinez #teamwork

• I don’t know if this is some karmic stuff waiting to happen, but it’s true: the Bucks are referring to their second unit as “The Bench Mob,” which is, of course, the moniker the Raptors gave their unit last season. If that doesn’t tell the backups they need to rediscover their identity, nothing will #copyright

• An early storyline to keep an eye on: when might the Raptors be in a position to use Anunoby against the Bucks? If it’s a long series that length and those fouls off the bench will be valuable #fearthedeer

• Another Premier League season is finished and Manchester United finished 32 points behind champions Manchester City – two points more than they finished behind top-flight winners Leeds United when they were relegated in 1973-74 #redfaced

• Aaron Gordon of the Magic gave Kawhi Leonard trouble in the regular season, but couldn’t repeat it in the playoffs. Now the focus will be on the Bucks’ Khris Middleton, who limited Leonard to 11-for-27 shooting from the field in three regular-season games #PlayoffKawhi

• Nurse may have uttered a phrase before Game 7 that deserves to be revisited by every analyst in every sport. Asked about which stats stood out in the series, he said that with the inordinate amount of “garbage time” in the series he wasn’t certain that didn’t invalidate some numbers #truth

• Ralph Krueger would be an inspired choice to coach the Buffalo Sabres, and provide GM Jason Botterill with a wealth of managerial support from his time as chairman of Southampton Football Club in addition to his coaching background. Plus, Krueger attended Winnipeg private school St. John’s Ravenscourt, as did Botterill family members #ties


It’s not even the middle of May, and so far we’ve seen Aaron Sanchez call out his team after a particularly sloppy game in Anaheim, and Marcus Stroman react tetchily to being removed by manager Charlie Montoyo from Saturday’s game.

The question is what to make of it all? The optimists will say it’s competitive fire. Nice thought. The haters will say Stroman’s actions, born out of an understandable frustration, were nonetheless an affront to his teammates, manager and pitching coach.

That they were sentiments best kept inside the clubhouse. Something to keep in mind: both pitchers are in the penultimate year before free agency, and a healthy and successful year can set them both up for the rest of their careers at a time when there is no longer a guarantee of multiple, multi-year contracts once you get over 30 years of age.

Both realize that their windows of opportunity don’t jibe with the ETA of the new core of this franchise. That they are in fact out of step with what’s going on here. The guess here is the organization understands this as well and realizes the goal remains the same as it was before these occurrences: accrue as much talent as possible to line up with a window of opportunity that will be dictated entirely by Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

I think there is a chance at least one of these two starters finishes the year with this team, but in the meantime, we’re all just going to have to get along.

Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9-11 a.m. and Baseball Central from 11-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan

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