TORONTO – Talk to players about Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse and you’ll begin to hear two words, in particular, in regards to his coaching style.
This has particularly been the case in regards to the myriad of defensive coverages Nurse has shown beginning in the Finals last June when he busted out a box-and-one against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors and now continuing here 21 games into the 2019-20 regular season.
If you can name a basketball defensive coverage, Nurse has likely already used it with this Raptors team, or is, at least, probably thinking about it in some capacity.
The aforementioned box-and-one, a triangle-and-two, even some two-three. These are just some of the straight zone schemes Nurse has used. Within man-to-man coverages, Nurse also likes being very aggressive in blitzing the pick-and-roll, doubling threats in the post or even sending doubles out on the perimeter to get the balls out of a dangerous ball-handler’s hands.
And it’s not as if Nurse has been tied to just one thing or one look from game-to-game, or even minute-to-minute within a game, for that matter. Nurse has mixed and matched zone and man coverages all season long to the tune of being one of the league’s top defensive teams, currently ranking sixth in defensive rating at 103.4 and first in opponent field-goal percentage, holding the league to a dismal 41.1-per-cent shooting from the floor.
The Raptors are in Philadelphia to play the 76ers Sunday evening where their defensive chops are sure to be in display once again, particularly because the last time these two teams met Toronto centre Marc Gasol and the Raptors defence held Joel Embiid to 0-for-11 shooting and zero points in a thrilling 101-96 victory.
This was a high-water mark for not just the Raptors’ season so far, but for Nurse’s defence as a whole. In fact, it was so effective that Nurse is now a little suspicious of the old if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it mentality with this particular scheme.
“That’s the battle I’m always in thinking, ‘Jeez they know we’re gonna do this’ because we’ve been doing it and they find something to beat it,” said Nurse after practice Saturday afternoon. “Then you’ve got to decide how, again, I’m going to roll the dice a lot, we’ll see how much I roll the dice on the coverages.”
But if Toronto’s defensive performance against Embiid was their best one of the season against an individual player, on the flip side you can point to how they handled James Harden and the Houston Rockets on Thursday.
Harden finished with 23 points on 7-for-11 shooting and just three assists, so on paper it kind of looks like the Raptors were successful. But then you see they lost 119-109 and allowed to Rockets to attempt 55 three-pointers, converting 40 per cent of them.
In this case, Nurse’s game plan was to all out blitz Harden and prevent him from even touching the ball as much as possible. And then, when he did get his hands on the ball, they would aggressively double-team him to force him to give it up.
Harden did just that, finding guys in open spots that would force the Raptors into a desperate scrambling situation that would often see Houston whip the ball around and find an open shooter for three.
It was a high-risk scheme that would work only if the Raptors could move quickly enough to close out on shooters and/or bank on the Rockets to miss. Neither happened nearly enough for the stratagem to pay off all the way and the team ended up losing, but it wasn’t without some positives coming about.
“Gosh, it was really good,” said Nurse after looking at the tape of the defence he used against the Rockets. “Now that I look back on it, I wasn’t quite sure I was glad I did it or not, but I’m 100-per-cent glad I did it now. It gives us another interesting thing to do.”
Nurse defined his coverage against the Rockets Thursday after the game as something more along the lines of an interesting experiment, but it appears he’s discovered a breakthrough with it, so it’s likely we’re going to see more of it in the future.
Who knows, it might come as early as Sunday against the Sixers. With Nurse and his defensive schemes, truly, anything appears to be on the table.
But as fun as it is for us to watch Nurse go with all of these coverages and try out all of these different looks, it’s got to be a little trying for players who are attempting to learn it all.
Nurse says there are base concepts that he likes to carry across the board in all of his coverages – “we still have some foundational principles that we like to do” – but this is still at least three or more different zone coverages in addition to man-to-man principles of how to attack a team’s pick-and-roll that can, and will, all get mixed and matched throughout the course of a game.
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like a fair bit to take in.
On the inside, however, it looks like Nurse is getting the message across with relative ease.
“He’s tricky, but he’s a great coach. I’m just getting adjusted,” said Shamorie Ponds, a rookie with the Raptors on a two-way deal, of experiencing Nurse’s coaching style for the first time. “I came here not too long ago, so I’m just getting adjusted to everything and I’m liking it.”
Added fellow rookie Dewan Hernandez, the 59th-overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, of difficulty involved in learning Nurse’s defence: “It’s not really much, but it is learning it. But all it is is effort and once you just know the terminology, the right places to be and to call out and talk on defence, that’s all it is. Effort.”
OK, so maybe if you’re an NBA player learning all of these coverages isn’t as hard as it might seem to the layman, but, certainly, it’s got to be a little frustrating if you’re player to be used as something like experimental guinea pigs for the purpose of trying out something Nurse wants to take a look like, right? Especially if you’re a veteran?
“I feel like when you just stick with one thing teams kind of figure out gaps in between because there’s always a gap,” said Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, in his fifth season as an NBA player and first with the Raptors. “So if you stick to the same thing they’re gonna start to exploit those weaknesses. So we want to throw them different things and different angles and different pieces to make them think more because when you think it flusters and can cause turnovers and make you mess up, so that’s kudos on his behalf.”
“He’s been very creative, unafraid and he’s got the conviction to just try new things,” said Gasol, a three-time all-star and former Defensive Player of the Year, now in his 12th season in the NBA. “It’s not always going to be perfect, but we’re going to scramble around and we believe in what we all do and we always have open minds as players and we understand what it’s for.
“I always think it’s good to have things in your back pocket just in case because it throws teams off rhythm, and I don’t see why not, because basketball’s also about creativity and trying different things.”
“At the end of the day our coach is very innovative and he tries things and he’s creative and we’re a team that buys into what he decides to do,” said five-time all-star Kyle Lowry. “I think everything is worth a shot, worth a try.”
So, as it turns out, the buy-in from the Raptors players as to what their coach is doing is very real, something Nurse is grateful for.
“We’re extremely happy. I think that we’ve got a group of guys here that are willing to take to coaching,” said Nurse of the open-mindedness of his players to experiment along with him. “And it’s not without their questioning why are we doing it? And I think that’s totally fair. I want them to understand why we’re doing it, and if they don’t know then they need to ask and they do, and I think that’s good. …
“So, yeah, I think that it’s great and I give them credit for their open-mindedness and I give them credit for kind of letting that build up and coming along with us on this river boat.”
The Raptors won an NBA championship partially because Nurse was willing to test out “janky” – to borrow how Curry described the box-and-one that shut him down – defensive schemes.
So why would he stop now?