Nick Nurse has done a remarkable job this season of being the ‘anti-coach’ — of almost consciously debunking through word and deed the super-serious, sleep-in-the-office, verging-on-paranoid stereotype that rings true because so many coaches fall into it so easily.
There is music at practice, a shoulder-shrugging, ‘Things happen’ after losses and a clear effort to avoid getting lost in the minutiae of the regular season when the real prize is the playoffs.
But Nurse’s commitment to keeping things in their proper perspective is about to get tested.
Losers of two straight and three-of-four, the Raptors leave Monday for a four-game road trip that is as difficult as any offered across the NBA at the moment.
They start in Los Angeles where the face the revitalized Los Angeles Clippers (16-9) on Tuesday night, head up the coast to visit the full-strength Golden State Warriors (18-9) Wednesday on a back-to-back, keep heading north to take on the Portland Trail Blazers (15-11) on Friday and then west to Denver to finish the trip at altitude against the Denver Nuggets (17-9) Sunday before coming home to host the Indiana Pacers (16-10).
It’s a difficult trip in any circumstance, but particularly given the Raptors’ recent woes. At least Kawhi Leonard heads out with some optimism.
“Any road games [are] a good time to buy into each other as a collective unit and try to go out and get those wins,” he said after the Raptors Sunday night loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at Scotiabank Arena — Toronto’s second loss to the Eastern Conference’s second-best team. “…It’s going to be a good trip for us.”
It depends how you define ‘good,’ I suppose.
If ‘good’ means a potentially revealing insight into the Leonard-era Raptors’ true character and potential, then sure, Leonard might be on to something. If ‘good’ means maintaining or extending their lead in the East and keeping teams like the advancing Bucks, 76ers and Celtics — winners of five straight — at bay?
Leonard may be stretching things.
Nurse claimed earlier this season to sleep better after losses than wins — perhaps his ultimate ‘anti-coach’ statement. The losses, he says, roll off him and he’s out like a light. The wins get him too excited, too revved up and not able to flip the switch.
There is a very real chance Nurse is going to come back from this Raptors west-coast trip well-rested, in contrast to their earlier visit west, where they swept all four games for the first time in franchise history.
As they board their charter it’s not just the opposition that poses a challenge — the Clippers, Warriors, Trail Blazers and Nuggets rank fourth, third, sixth and second in net-rating among Western Conference teams — the Raptors have real problems of their own to deal with for the first time this season.
Chief among them is Kyle Lowry’s disappearing act.
Since sitting out the Raptors’ visit to Cleveland on Dec. 1 with a sore back, the engine that makes the Raptors go has sputtered badly over the subsequent four games — at least offensively — as he’s shot just 4-of-28 from the field and 4-of-25 from deep (that’s 14.3 per cent shooting, overall, if the raw numbers don’t tell the story clearly enough) for an average of 3.8 points a game.
He’s on a career-worst run of five games without scoring in double figures.
That Lowry somehow has managed a +9 net-rating over that stretch speaks to his exceptional ability to affect games without scoring — he’s still averaged nine assists and remains the NBA leader in that category — but Toronto needs him to score also, as the Raptors’ 1-3 record over the past four games would suggest. Lowry is averaging just seven points and a stunning 9.5 per cent from three (4-of-42) in Toronto’s seven losses compared to 16 points a game and 39.7 per cent from three in the 20 wins in which he’s played.
The Raptors’ primary offensive weapon is Leonard, but they are a juggernaut when Lowry is banging threes from deep beyond the arc, forcing the opposition to meet him higher on the floor and allowing him the room he needs to push past the first layer of defenders and force them into scramble mode where he can pick them apart.
It’s why his coach and his teammates are imploring Lowry to shoot more during his slump, rather than less.
“Don’t turn [shots] down, don’t overpass it. You’re a primary scorer for us. Get aggressive in transition. Let’s see some of those deep bombs in transition,” Nurse was imploring before Sunday’s game. “I don’t want him to say, ‘Geez, I haven’t shot well for three games so I’m going to limit my attempts.’ In fact, it should be the opposite. I’d like to see him pull about 10 of them tonight.”
He pulled five and missed them all against the Bucks, which speaks to an injured sense of confidence or perhaps something else.
Lowry will never dwell on or reveal his health issues but in the past, periods when he’s struggled mightily have coincided with some ailment or another. His post-All-Star nosedive in 2014-15 were attributed to back issues and his shooting woes during the 2015-16 playoffs were at least partially explained by an elbow problem.
But Lowry’s issues aren’t the Raptors only issue.
Last season they could rely the bench to bail them out of some low moments, but not this year. Early on, their struggles were blamed on a lack of continuity as Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, OG Anunoby and C.J. Miles all missed varying stretches of time together. But they are all back and in good health and Toronto still fails to get high-level production when the starters sit.
After leading the NBA in bench +/- a year ago, they are 22nd as they head west. VanVleet is finding some form but Wright, Anunoby and Miles have all been ghosts. Anunoby is 6-of-19 from the floor the past four games and on a team desperate for rebounding help he still shows little instinct for the task despite his size and quickness as he averages just 4.8 rebounds per 36 minutes. Miles is shooting just 27 per cent from three and has seen his minutes drop as Nurse is hoping to dial up a better defensive effort from the second unit.
“Obviously that’s a couple of games in a row and two stints [against Milwaukee] that they really weren’t as productive as they need to be,” said Nurse. “They don’t need to set the world on fire, they just need to hold serve a little bit. (There are) some really good players there that aren’t playing well enough collectively and individually, so we have to get them going. There are some guys that we know we believe in and we trust. They are making some good plays, they are just not finishing with baskets.”
Something will have to give. The Raptors will need to either have the likes of Lowry or their bench unit rediscover their game on the trip or they will come home with their first mini-crisis on their hands.
The ‘old’ Raptors could always do well against weaker opponents, it was against the cream of the crop that they sputtered. The ‘new’ Raptors were put together to address that issue, to meet the league’s best on equal terms.
On that score they will arrive home in a week with a better understanding of how far they’ve come.