Never panic is a worthwhile philosophy in life and when coaching an NBA team, turns out.
From a distance at least it appears that Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse subscribes to it in either context, and his team too.
Coming off an uncharacteristically weak performance against the Boston Celtics Friday by his team and – not coincidentally – another poor outing by Pascal Siakam, his best offensive player, Nurse didn’t overreact.
There was no punishing practice on Saturday or hours of film study to nitpick flaws large and small.
And that consideration was extended to Siakam, who has been less than ordinary over four previous seeding games and bottomed out with a 5-of-15, 11-point dud against Boston in which he was a team-worst -26.
“We didn’t watch the film of the last game,” said Nurse. “He’s getting good looks.”
The payoff for the calm approach came at various points and from different sources during Toronto’s 108-99 Sunday afternoon win over the Memphis Grizzlies at Walt Disney World Resort that clinched the second seed in the Eastern Conference for the Raptors, improved their record to 4-1 since the season resumed and lifted to Toronto to 50-15 for the year, marking the fifth straight year they’ve reached that milestone.
Siakam – as an example — stepped up with a game-high 26 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including some late daggers that put another nail in the Grizzlies fading playoff hopes. Siakam has taken on more responsibility during his four seasons but one of his most important lessons has been learning when and how to let poor performances roll of his back more.
His performance against the Grizzlies was a master class.
“I think I’ve gotten a lot better,” said Siakam. “Also, the help of my teammates, just kind of understanding who I am as a player and always being on me about continuing to trust the game and playing the game the right way.
“I know that there’s a lot of times that [playing badly] happens and I’ve always been able to bounce back, I believe I can do that. There’s gonna be bad games, you can’t get down on yourself, that’s something that I learned a lot last year, too, and I think it’s part of my growth as a player: understanding that some nights you might go 5-for-20 but it don’t really matter as long as you have that same energy, play on defence and I think that’s the only thing I can really be mad about, not really having the energy that I’m supposed to have. Other than that, I don’t really care about makes and misses to be honest because I know that I work hard and always do the right thing and I make the right plays and at the end of the day that’s my attention, and sometimes it’s gonna go good, sometimes it’s not gonna go good, and as long as I’m doing that, I’m content with myself.”
It’s part of being a professional. Serge Ibaka – who himself bounced back from an 0-for-7 outing against Boston with 12 points, 12 rebounds and three sharp assists.
“After a bad game you have to sit down and ask yourself: ‘did you do all [professional things] right? Did you sleep good, eat healthy, get a massage? [If] You have a bad game, all you have to do is come back, believe in yourself and try to be better.
It gets easier over time:
“With time and years, you are learning. It’s good,” said Ibaka. “We complain about being old, but that’s the good thing about being old: you learn a lot of things.”
Ibaka’s play was among the several encouraging signs from the Raptors’ point of view but Siakam looking like his old self at the head of the list. It wasn’t just that he scored in volume and with his typical efficiency, it’s that he had the look of a player looking to stop a slump the smart way.
Early on after missing a pair of threes, his first hoop came three feet from the rim on a feed from Kyle Lowry and his second was from two feet as he made a smart cut and got a pass from Serge Ibaka.
Siakam has added so much to his game – the former college post player has turned himself into a legitimate face-up scoring threat on the wing in the blink of an eye, it feels like — but he was first noticed in the NBA for his activity in the paint and in transition. He seemed to make an effort to return to those roots – he made another tough finish inside before stepping out to the three-point line again, and contributed defensively too, locking up Grizzlies super rookie Ja Morant on one first-half play.
Nurse had more opportunity to have his patience test as the Raptors trailed 25-20 after the first quarter, a continuation of Toronto’s offensive struggles against Boston.
If the seeding season is going to have ‘dog days’ you’d have to think this would be the time. The Raptors are about to start their eighth week in Florida and they still are more than a week from the playoffs beginning and three weeks from the possibility of being reconnected from their families.
The uber-consistent Raptors are showing it a little bit. Or maybe they just can’t make a shot?
That was the case early. They didn’t hit a three until Kyle Lowry banged one with 33 seconds left in the first, making them 1-of-9 from deep, meanwhile the Grizzlies put up 13 triples and seven.
Nurse kept it positive, even if he had to fake it a little bit.
“It wasn’t easy. I was doing a lot of cheerleading in the timeouts, I really was,” said Nurse. “You acknowledge the fact that, man, it’s just not going our way. I don’t know why. We’re getting good shots, you’re doing a lot of good things, you’re playing hard and you just gotta hang in there.
“Just tell ‘em there’s a lot of ways to win games; games take a lot of different flows to them, but hang in, hang in, hang in and hang in and hopefully a spark will hit and things will turn your way.
“And I think we got that. We ended up putting up, what in the second quarter? 40 points? So, again, give ‘em credit because it wasn’t much fun for them, the energy was low, the shots weren’t going in, it was getting less fun and less energetic and then they hung in there and found a little bit of rhythm.”
Nurse did his part in the second quarter by going a little deeper into his bench and finding some minutes for Matt Thomas who would be tied for the league lead in three-point percentage at 46.3 if he had enough attempts to qualify.
Thomas knocked down a pair of threes and that seemed to release a little pressure as the Raptors went on a 15-4 run late in the second period that helped Toronto take a 60-54 lead into half. They built on it from there. The Raptors pushed their lead to double figures early in the third quarter and never let Memphis get back within single digits until Mississauga’s Dillon Brooks converted the Raptors 22nd of an alarming 26 turnovers on the afternoon – the only real red flag on the day – with just under six minutes left.
That was part of a 19-4 run that helped pull the Grizzlies – grinding to try and hang on to the eighth seed in the West – to within three with just over three minutes to play.
But Siakam was ready.
He nailed a step-back triple helped that helped steady the ship and then another three off a pass from Fred VanVleet that pushed the Raptors lead back go seven with two minutes left, which was all they needed.
On what was the game chiller if not the game-winner, Siakam stepped into his shot calmly, without a hint of concern; confident that a few less than typical games are simply a blip, not a trend.
A life lesson from 23 feet, nine inches, played out over 48 minutes.