DENVER – There are milestones that every NBA coach accumulates on his journey:
His first win; coaching in nationally televised games; winning big games on the road and on and on.
Nick Nurse has done all that and more through 31 games as a head coach with the Toronto Raptors but he’d largely avoided going after the referees. After game 32, at the end of a tough four-game road trip his team split, Nurse chose not to hold back in the wake of a frustrating 95-86 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
He will almost certainly be receiving notice that he’ll be levied with his first fine from the league office for putting the referees on blast – a no-no no matter how justified the cause.
The focus of Nurse’s frustration was the measly four free throws Kawhi Leonard shot after a night when he was carrying the mail for a short-handed Raptors attack and often having to bull his way through multiple defenders or escape the grasp of a very handsy crew of Nuggets.
In the ‘new’ NBA, where freedom of movement for the offensive players is paramount, Nurse felt like referees Mike Callahan, Marat Kogut and Haywoode Workman were dialling the clock back to the bump-and-grind 1990s.
“They were the ones that were hitting, holding, cutting, grabbing, clutching, hitting,” Nurse fumed.
“You can’t tell me that one of the best players in the league takes 100 hits and shoots four free-throws, and they handed him two for charity at the end. So he was going to have two free-throws for the game with all the physical hits and holding and driving and chucking and doubling and slapping and reaching and all the stuff. It’s been going on all year. I do not understand why they are letting everyone play one of the best players in the league so physically. I do not understand it.”
Leonard was the most aggressive player on the floor all night, of that there is no doubt. He had no choice. The Raptors went into the game missing their three best playmakers is Kyle Lowry (thigh), Fred VanVleet (back) and Pascal Siakam (back). Already without Jonas Valanciunas (thumb), whose work on the offensive boards can also provide some unscripted offence, Leonard was going to have to carry the load.
He’s more than capable, and for a long stretch in the middle of the game it appeared he was going to get the Raptors home as he exploded for 19 of his 29 points in an 11-minute stretch from late in the first half to the 7:50-mark of the third quarter. It helped the Raptors go into the half on an 11-0 run and leading 47-39. By the time he sat for a rest after fist-pumping in celebration of hitting one more jumper with four minutes to go in the third, the Raptors led 70-57 and seemed like they might be able to hang on.
But Leonard needed help and he agreed with Nurse that he didn’t get any from the referees.
“It’s been like that all year but in this era with how the game is and the rules today I feel like I agree with [Nurse],” said Leonard. “It was very physical but I just go with the next play. It could only get me ready for what’s to come. I just pride myself on keeping moving and keeping going.”
More vital than some help from the refs, Leonard could have used some help from his teammates.
The Raptors started the fourth quarter leading 72-68 and simply stopped scoring. The Nuggets grew increasingly aggressive, throwing more bodies at Leonard. He made the right play in pitching the ball to open teammates, the problem is no one could deliver the next play.
The Nuggets got exactly that as they exploded for a 23-2 run. Nikola Jokic scored 26 points on 19 shots while Canadian Jamal Murray caught fire in the fourth, scoring 15 of his 19 in the final period.
Toronto shot 1-of-13 from three in the fourth quarter with C.J. Miles missing all four of his wide-open looks and OG Anunoby going 1-of-5 on his. The pair have been struggling mightily from behind the arc all season and came into the game shooting 34 and 31 per cent, respectively, on ‘open’ or ‘wide-open’ threes, per NBA.com and those totals got worse as the game went on.
“In our fourth quarter we missed a lot of open shots,” said Leonard. “That’s when we have to hang our hats on defence and making the other team miss. It was just one of those nights.”
The Raptors did just that, which makes the loss more frustrating. Toronto held the Nuggets to 42.4 per cent shooting and won the rebounding battle 51-44, with Leonard leading the way there with 14 boards as he keeps adding to his career-high totals in that category.
There are no excuses – and it should be pointed out that the Nuggets were without two starters in Paul Millsap and Gary Harris and have played without key reserve Will Barton all year – but based on effort, the Raptors deserved better, at least in their coach’s mind.
“We played our butts off. We outplayed them. We outplayed them. No question,” said Nurse. “Tonight was a very severe case of a guy who was playing great, taking it to the rim and just getting absolutely held, grabbed, poked, slapped, hit and everything. And they refused to call any of it. It’s unbelievable to me. Unbelievable to me. It’s ridiculous. The guy is one of the best players in the league and he doesn’t complain, he doesn’t do this, he doesn’t do that, and they just turn their head and go the other way. It’s been going on all year.”
Nurse may be taking a little license there as he strived to get his money’s worth on his fine. Leonard came into the game averaging 6.9 free-throw attempts a game which is 10th in the NBA. He averages .367 free-throw attempts for every shot he takes which is 18th, but not far behind the likes of Kevin Durant (15th) or LeBron James (14th).
But on this night, four three throws seemed low, even if the refs seemed happy to swallow the whistle all evening as both teams shot just 30 free throws combined with the Raptors putting up 14 and the Nuggets 16.
But it’s hard to win anything when you shoot 7-of-37 from three and 1-of-13 from deep in the fourth, most of them on wide-open looks.
Leonard might have deserved a better whistle, but had his teammates delivered some better shooting and the win, the referees might have been able to get away with murder and Nick Nurse would still have his money.