For the moment, Toronto Raptors first-year head coach Nick Nurse can get lost in the shuffle, and he likes it that way.
“It’s really good walking home after practice,” he said of his status as the new – and relatively unknown – head coach who is now 1-0 in his NBA career.
“I walk home sometimes [and don’t get recognized].”
Similarly he’s not a known quantity to opposing coaches. There is no book on Nurse tendencies or favourite play calls because the last time he was calling the shots was for the Rio Grande Vipers in the G League before he was hired as an assistant coach with the Raptors prior to the 2013-14 season.
And with just three NBA-standard exhibition games under his belt as a head coach at this level, the guy who used to pore over NBA VHS tapes sent to him when he was coaching in England and draw up plays on pizza boxes over beers with his buddies after coaching clinics hasn’t been able to implement his full menu.
If his players don’t know his entire package, how can opposing teams?
“It probably helps a little [to be unknown],” Nurse said on Thursday as the Raptors were getting ready to host the Boston Celtics at Scotiabank Arena on Friday. “It’s not so much a huge scientific formula trying to figure things out. [But] I’m hoping there are some little things here and there like [after timeout plays], special situations, end of games [we can use],” he said. “… I think you’ll see some things change a little bit more and open up a little bit more as we go on.”
For all the justifiable buzz around the Raptors having added a (seemingly) healthy MVP candidate in Kawhi Leonard and a championship-winning role player in Danny Green from San Antonio in the off-season, it’s the Celtics (1-0) that are widely expected to emerge from the East.
The math is easy: minus a pair of injured all-stars in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving the Celtics won 55 games and came within a game of the NBA Finals. With Hayward and Irving healthy and wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum having flashed all-star potential before being old enough to drink in most states, Boston seems like a team ready to take a giant step.
“I think everybody up and down the league is in agreement that they’re the best team in the East, right?,” said Nurse. “Everybody keeps saying that, and they’re picked to go to the Finals and all that kind of stuff, and we hope we’re in that race with ‘em.”
Another reason they are a popular pick is the growing reputation enjoyed by Celtics head coach Brad Stevens for his ability to squeeze points out of thin air, like when he got his team a layup after a timeout to send Game 3 of their second-round series against Philadelphia into overtime and then another ATO (after time-out) layup to win it in the extra period.
“Brad is a genius, man,” Celtics veteran Al Horford gushed after that game. “Unbelievable. Sometimes he draws some stuff up and I look at him like, ‘I didn’t think [you could do that].’”
The “Brad is genius” talk can get a lot of NBA coaches a little tense.
It was telling that not only did Stevens fail to win the National Basketball Coach’s Association’s coach of the year award as voted by his fellow coaches – former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey won it – he wasn’t even among the seven other coaches to get a single vote.
The snub seemed impossibly petty, but no one said that coaches can’t be.
Nurse wasn’t about to pump Stevens’ tires before Friday’s game, but he acknowledged that the Celtics boss has earned his rep.
“One hundred per cent,” said Nurse.
Now it’s Nurse’s chance to earn his stripes.
The Celtics may not have a single dominant player likely to get a lot of MVP consideration at this stage – although 20-year-old Jason Tatum could be heading that way – but their across-the-board talent creates a different kind of problem.
“I think the biggest three things you credit them with is an incredibly deep rotation, versatile as well, [and] they play defence and they play it as a team, and they really share the ball,” Nurse said. “… We go to certain mismatches. They go to them all over the floor. They have five guys out there, it could be any one of the five that they think ‘OK, something’s happened, there’s a switch now, let’s go find them’, and they’re pretty good at finding them.”
Figuring out how to solve those riddles and present Stevens with some riddles to figure out on the fly is Nurse’s job now.
So even as Leonard catches up after missing nearly all of last year with an injury and Green gets familiar with his first new team in nine years, matching wits with Stevens so early in the season is a dive into the deep end for Nurse, who was far enough removed from the high-speed chess coaching an NBA game can be that he coached the Raptors entry in the Las Vegas Summer League to help shake the rust off, a role reserved for up-and-coming assistants, typically.
In-game coaching decisions were one of the areas that the Raptors executives felt were lacking at times when Casey was on the job, with a litany of perceived ills coming to a head when Toronto was swept out of the playoffs by the Cavaliers for the second-straight time this past spring.
So far Nurse has earned high marks all around for his training camp and emphasis on keeping things fresh. Convincing veterans to embrace fluid roles or new ones is no easy feat in a league where minutes and shots are currency.
But coaches live and die on how they solve problems in games. How did Nurse in his debut? Not badly, he says, all things considered.
He correctly anticipated the Cavaliers would try to take advantage of Kevin Love’s ability to stretch the floor late against Jonas Valanciunas and pulled the big centre the moment he saw it happen rather than risk the Cavaliers getting on a run in what was an 11-point game. He’d warned Valanciunas about the precise scenario before it occurred so he could go back to Serge Ibaka without ruffling feathers.
“It was pretty obvious [against Cleveland] that I was not going to let them use the pick-and-pop five man on us to bang the threes like they’ve historically done to us in a four- or five-minute stretch in the game,” said Nurse.
“There was a little rust on there [against Cleveland] on a couple ATOs,” Nurse said. “I think we made a few adjustments once we saw what they were doing and got to where we wanted to go and opened up the game. There was a segment where we switched what we were doing offensively and the game opened up.
“I got a C-plus last night, if I have to give myself a grade.”
Friday is the first of four meetings between Boston and Toronto and given the Raptors’ ambitions they all matter as any one of them could be the difference between home-court advantage in the conference finals and trying to win a Game 7 on the road.
As with his players, even though things are new and somewhat unfamiliar, there is an urgency for Nurse to hit his stride quickly.