Currently sitting with the fourth-best defensive rating in the league at 103.0, and allowing the rest of the league to shoot just 41.1 per cent from the field — an NBA-best mark — it’s pretty safe to say that the Toronto Raptors have emerged as a defensive juggernaut and have an identity based around their defensive prowess.
It wasn’t always like this, however. In fact, according to Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, this defensive identity the Raptors have taken up only came about from the second game of their first-round playoff matchup with the Orlando Magic last season onwards.
“I tell everybody, it didn’t really start until Game 2 of the Orlando series,” said Nurse on Sportsnet 590 the FAN’s Writers Bloc Thursday afternoon. “I don’t think we went out and played hard enough in Game 1, but in Game 2 we were incredible.
“As good of a defensive performance as I’ve ever seen in Game 2 of that thing and that was kind of like, ‘OK guys, you now see what you can do, if you’re willing to commit to this you can go as far as you want to go.’ And I think it kept building through the playoffs.”
Keep building it did, all the way until Toronto eventually emerged from the post-season gauntlet as NBA Champions and with the know-how of how to play NBA championship-level defence — something that Nurse says is the reason why he was so mad at newcomers such as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at during training camp and beginning portions of the season.
There was a certain defensive level Nurse expected his players to play at, and the new guys simply weren’t reaching it at the time.
“You guys heard me complaining about the new guys a lot for the first month of training camp that they just didn’t get that we’re gonna play defence,” said Nurse. And it’s our staff and that’s how we want to play, but it’s also, and I’m pointing to the guys that have been here, these guys don’t want you to be around if you’re not gonna play the right way. And that’s Marc [Gasol] and that’s Kyle [Lowry] and that’s Fred [VanVleet] and that’s OG [Anunoby] and that’s Pascal [Siakam]. The guys that grew through that success and understand it.”
But with key Raptors players, such as Lowry and Serge Ibaka, going down due to injury, some of those players who were in Nurse’s doghouse were forced to step up and have done so, most notably Hollis-Jefferson, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher.
“I give all those guys credit,” said Nurse. “We started having two-a-days where we had a practice and then all of the new guys had to practice again, and it was mostly on defence and they weren’t very happy about it for the first couple days but then they kinda took it on board and started doing it and learning our schemes a little better and playing a little harder and I think it’s paying off for them. So they’ve had buy-in and it’s helping them, it’s helping their own individual success.”
And on the topic of buy-in, Nurse also spoke about his other gig, as the head coach of the Canadian men’s national basketball team, and the apparent wave of commitment Team Canada’s seen of late from notable Canadian NBA players such as Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and R.J. Barrett.
“It’s kinda lining up really good,” Nurse said. “It didn’t align very well for a little while, [now] it’s come full circle the other direction and it’s aligning good. Yeah, I’m excited, really excited. It’s a heck of a chance. But I’m glad the players are getting out there and saying it. I think it’s helping build momentum for the other guys and it’s nice that they’re doing it publicly, too,
“It’s easy to tell everybody you talk to ‘Yeah, I’ll be there.’ But to go out and say, ‘I’m gonna play and I can’t wait’ and then have another guy say ‘I’m with him’ and ‘I’m with them’ it just builds from there and it’s great.”
You can listen to Nurse’s entire appearance on Writers Bloc in the audio player above where, among other topics, he discusses how he’s managed to piece his rotation together on the fly amid the injuries the Raptors have sustained.