Raptors’ Nick Nurse focused on winning games, not awards

Toronto Raptors' head coach Nick Nurse applauds his players during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat. (Ashley Landis, Pool, AP)

TORONTO – Nick Nurse is a pretty good coach.

Some might even hazard to say that he’s the best coach in the NBA.

The .716 win percentage Nurse now boasts after a 107-103 victory over the Miami Heat Monday afternoon is the best winning percentage by any coach of all-time, he’s already won an NBA championship and he helped guide a Toronto Raptors team that lost 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard — and dealt with a rash of injuries to core pieces of its rotation — to the third-best record in the NBA before the hiatus. And now, of course, to a perfect 2-0 start in the Orlando seeding games.

This is the kind of resume that, more often than not, results in recognition from media and peers alike.

But while it feels like the media is certainly prepared to give Nurse his proper credit as the front-runner for the NBA’s Coach of the Year award, it would seem his peers think otherwise.

On Monday, just about an hour before the Raptors tipped off against the Heat, it was announced that Milwaukee Bucks and Oklahoma City Thunder bench bosses Mike Budenholzer and Billy Donovan were named co-coaches of the year by the National Basketball Coaches Association.

Nurse, it was reported, came one vote shy of making it a three-way tie for the award.

“Those guys obviously did a great job,” Nurse said of Budenholzer and Donovan winning. “You can’t argue with the Bucks’ record and how great OKC did after everybody had lower expectations for them. So those guys are very deserving.”

A gracious answer and not an inaccurate one. The Bucks boast the best record in the NBA for the second season straight and everyone did write off the Thunder after they lost Russell Westbrook and Paul George, making them one of the NBA’s best surprise stories.

However, the Raptors were also a team that were written off and given the fact they lack a top-five player like Giannis Antetokounmpo, it still feels like the job Nurse did was more impressive.

Never mind, though, because Nurse and the Raptors are pretty used to this lack of recognition.

“I’m gonna be honest. We don’t really care. Truly, we really don’t care,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said of Toronto constantly flying under the radar. “We did it all last year and we got a lot of attention when we got Kawhi, and then we got talked down for the whole year and then when you win you get all the credit you could ever ask for, and more.”

And winning is what all the Raptors seem to do, with a large part of that owed to Nurse at the helm.

Take Monday’s game as an example. The Raptors and Heat are two very evenly-matched clubs, blessed with talent and a scrappiness that ensures they’re always in games.

As a result, these two teams have a tendency to have very close, down-to-the-wire affairs where one or two adjustments made by the respective coaches wind up being the difference.

Monday was no different, and while VanVleet’s brilliance played a large role in the final outcome – he finished with a career-high 36 points, shooting 7-for-12 from three-point range – it was Nurse’s foundational defensive scheme that ultimately closed the game for the Raptors.

With 14.9 seconds left in the contest, Miami had the ball down just two and were looking to tie or even win the game, but they never got the chance because of what has now become the Raptors’ signature in the Nurse era: Scrambling, switching, suffocating, all-out defence that here resulted in a turnover and Pascal Siakam heading to the free throw line to ice the game.

Afterwards, Nurse spoke glowingly of his team’s defence down the stretch before that final, stifling sequence you can see above.

“I think the last three minutes we were awesome, defensively, and that’s another good sign, another step forward. It’s really good practice for us to be in a close game and have to get some stops,” he said. “And really, really good there at the end when you need a stop, kind of a game-winning stop and to create a turnover.”

Obviously, the players were the ones who executed – VanVleet, in particular, who poked the ball loose from Goran Dragic – but the defence the Raptors play, first seen during the post-season last year, is a certifiable Nurse specialty. From box-and-one looks to all-out switching, scrambling coverages that closed out the Heat Monday, Nurse has never been afraid to try new looks on defence and the results speak for themselves.

The Raptors have been in flux personnel-wise all year, forcing them to change up their offence a little at times, but one thing that has never changed all season long has been their defensive brilliance — and that’s all Nurse.

So while he may not have gotten the recognition he deserves from his peers, it’s not like it’ll bother him. He’s too busy devising ways to shut these guys’ offences down to care, anyway.

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