For the first time in a long time, Nick Nurse can catch his breath.
The circumstance are less than ideal and he would contend he didn’t need to, but now that COVID-19 has brought the NBA season and just about everything else to a full halt, the Toronto Raptors head coach has time on his hands.
He’s been going mostly full out since June of 2018 when he was hired for his first NBA head coaching job, immediately jumping into the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas and then jetting around the continent to connect with his new players while meeting and hiring his staff and preparing for training camp and the addition of Kawhi Leonard.
His rookie NBA season couldn’t possibly have gone better as everyone knows. He was on the sidelines for 82 games and 24 more in the post-season, culminating in the Raptors winning their first NBA title in Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Oakland on June 13.
Then it was a celebration, a parade, free agency and Summer League again. There was a brief pause in late July but then it was back to Toronto to prepare the Canadian senior men’s team to play in the FIBA World Cup of Basketball in China, returning in mid-September when he jumped right into preparing the Raptors for their title defence.
“It was a pretty good run, from June 13, 2019, on, it was a pretty fast, fast, fast-lane life for a little while,” said Nurse. “Really moving in from one thing to the next constantly. So it has, has enabled me to slam on the brakes and catch my breath a little bit, which is good and I don’t feel like I really needed it. You know what I mean. But now that it’s here, you know when you’re looking for silver linings or positives about it you can say it was, you know, it’s been OK.”
The brakes slammed pretty hard for Nurse — as they did for just about everyone else.
On March 11 he was at the launch party for his charitable foundation aimed at implementing basketball, music and literacy programs in and around Toronto when news reports began circulating that Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus. It was barely an hour later that the NBA season was suspended. The Raptors had just come home from their longest road trip of the season, one which took them through California where a state of emergency was declared while they were there and which finished in Utah where two Jazz players – Donovan Mitchell was the other – eventually tested positive.
Nurse went from a party at Hotel X to testing at North York General Hospital to being quarantined in his room for the next 14 days. No one in the Raptors’ travelling party has tested positive for the virus.
“Obviously it hit really close to home because it was, really, a member of really the NBA family,” said Nurse. “So I think the… immediacy of it. And the closeness of it. I think made it very serious for all of us.
“I think I shifted into the mode of right away, ‘let’s do what we’re supposed to do, let’s get home and stay home and try to start spreading that message of, ‘let’s make sure we do what we’re told here and try to stay healthy.’
“…people were concerned about working out and going to the [training facility] and all this stuff, and I was really, really strong in my messaging to everybody that we’re gonna close this and stay shut,” said Nurse, who recorded a number of public service announcements about the importance of hand-washing and social distancing.
“Let’s make sure we get out and if we can provide any messages, washing hands and those kinds of things, I just really wanted it to be focussed on that.”
The forced rest has provided unexpected benefits. Rather than preparing for what would have been a much-hyped showdown against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night and likely a battle between the first and second seeds in the East, Nurse is at home helping tend his toddlers, aged three and one.
He’s even been able to watch last year’s title run from a different perspective, tuning into the replays of the games running every night on Sportsnet and TSN, including Game 7 against Philadelphia which ended on Leonard’s iconic shot from the right corner, directly in front of Nurse and the Raptors bench.
“I think the other day when Game 7 against Philly was on, I think it was actually the first time I’d ever watched that other than in a highlight,” he said. “Obviously you see it all the time on highlights, just moving around the city or the arena or the practice facility or whatever, but that was the first time I’d ever seen it.”
“I guess I didn’t really realize that Kawhi put so much arc on that shot, that was my first takeaway. My other takeaway is you don’t really remember some of the specifics. And… I was sitting there watching it with [his wife] Roberta, and she was like ‘what happens here? How does it get to be a tie game.’ I go, ‘well, Kawhi must have missed one of these free throws’ [Leonard was at the line with 10 seconds left and went 1 of 2, opening the door to the Sixers tying the game on a lay-up with four seconds left, setting the stage for Leonard’s dramatic game winner].
“So you’re seeing things and obviously you don’t remember every little detail. But yeah, the big picture stuff, it obviously lets it sink in a little bit.”
What hasn’t sunk in yet is what shape the basketball calendar will take when it does get up and running.
Already postponed until 2021 are the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Nurse said he remains “100 per cent’ committed to coaching the Canadian senior men’s team through qualifying and ideally into the Olympics next summer.
As for the remainder of the NBA season, Nurse is like anyone else — unsure of what comes next.
In the meantime he’s meeting with his coaching staff regularly, if virtually. Normally they would be well into preparing for any of the No. 2-seed Raptors potential playoff opponents with each member of his coaching staff being assigned a particular opponent to study, the result presented to Nurse in long individual meetings at his office.
“It’s probably a two-hour video that we would go through in about three hours, on each of the certain teams, in the East, and then a handful of them in the West as well,” said Nurse. “The coaches had started in on that already, and they’ll continue on that, the only difference is there’s no real one-on-one time with me yet.
“The way we can do it they’ll probably just have to send me their edit and I’ll just have to watch it, and talk to them on the phone or something like that; FaceTime or something.”
Otherwise? The time at home with his kids has been “fantastic,” and Nurse has been pecking away at his musical hobbies — piano and guitar. He’s even trying to learn Portuguese [his wife Roberta is from Brazil].
But like everyone he’s eager for routines to resume and with the Raptors in the middle of a promising title defence, hungry to find out how good his team can be.
When that might be or in what format — there have been reports that the NBA might attempt to finish out the season by quarantining teams in a single location and playing games for the benefit of a television audience only with a truncated playoff system — Nurse doesn’t know and hasn’t thought too much about.
“What I do think about it in terms of is this: this is a really good team, and it’s a really fun team to coach, and I think about it in terms of… it’s a shame that we don’t get to be around each other and play some games and keep this thing going a little bit,” he said.
“You know what I mean? I’m not saying it very well, but this is a really unique situation that I don’t think happens every day in this type of team. Shoot, I could coach these guys 12 months a year, just keep on going, we could keep playing all the time, they’re fun to be around, and fun to coach and they compete and they’re tough, and they figure it out.
“And it’s a true joy, and they are missed, there’s no doubt about it.”