DETROIT – Nick Nurse has been to the NBA’s all-star weekend before.
The Toronto Raptors head coach first got there when he and his trusted assistant Nate Bjorkgren were working their way through what was then the NBA Development League, now the G-League, and the minor league’s all-star game was an undercard to the main event.
For Nurse, who made it to the G-League after nearly 20 years coaching in Britain – one of the least glossy European leagues – it was an eye-opener.
“I mean, I did a couple [of all-star weekends] as a D-league coach. And we got to kind of, you know, cross paths with the NBA guys when we were coming off the practice floor and they were going on,” said Nurse. “That was cool to us. Nate and I were going like, ‘Oh my God, that was LeBron James.’ And now we devise plans to beat those guys.”
And they do it pretty well, the record would show.
Nurse has been to the all-star game as an assistant coach too, as part of now-Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey’s Raptors staff in 2018. Even then it was a novel experience.
“I don’t want to sound like a little kid or anything, but it was like the first time I’d really been around it with all the mega, mega stars. I hadn’t been in the league all that long,” said Nurse.
Things happen fast. In his first year as a head coach Nurse led the Raptors to an NBA championship.
And now, after Toronto’s 106-92 win over the Pistons at Little Caesars Arena Friday night, Nurse and his staff have secured the right to lead Team Giannis in the all-star game set for Feb. 16 in Chicago.
Normally it is the head coach of the first-place team in each conference before the cut-off date – Feb. 2 in this case – that gets the mostly ceremonial role, but the same coach can’t do it two years in a row, which eliminated Mike Budenholzer of the first-place Milwaukee Bucks.
The Raptors’ win Friday night extended their winning streak to 10 games, improved their record to 35-14 and clinched a weekend in Chicago for Nurse, Bjorkgren and the rest of their staff, as they can’t be caught for second regardless of what happens in their game at home against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday.
“We get to be the beneficiaries, I think, of a kind of organizational award,” said Nurse after the game. “You get to go coach that thing and it’s certainly a tremendous honour for us but you know, there’s a lot that goes into it and it should be a really enjoyable experience for our guys. It’s neat. Like I said before the game, it’s neat to be around that event, the greatest players in the world all under one roof. And I think it’s gonna be a good experience for the whole staff all the way down through.”
It ranks behind winning a title and Nurse would likely trade it for a well-deserved contract extension – his current deal runs through the 2020-21 season but there is no reason why he shouldn’t get re-upped right now, in my opinion. Given that Nurse can only be on the very short list for Coach of the Year honours, that price might be going up fast.
But the all-star nod is representative of a job well done. There have been so many storylines around the Raptors this season that Nurse’s role has probably been undersold, but the all-star game spotlight should bring some much-deserved league-wide attention.
Fred VanVleet worked with Nurse for two years when he was an assistant and now for 18 months with him in the head coaching role and has come to appreciate the job he does – even if the Raptors guard was feigning being bitter about being pulled one assist and two rebounds short of his first career triple-double.
“He’s hating on me, man,” said VanVleet. “We got him in the all-star game and he couldn’t even leave me in to get the triple double? We have a little beef there for sure.
“[But] all jokes aside, I think we have a special bond with those guys, obviously winning a championship together, it’s a just a really cool experience. They did it as assistants but for Nurse to win a championship in his first year and in his second year be head coach of the all-star team, and for the rest of the assistants to go, it’s a great honour.”
With the free agency departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from last season’s championship team – a superstar and one of the best two-way role players in the NBA — and without any significant additions, the Raptors were almost universally projected as a fringe playoff team or worse in the East.
At the moment they are on pace for 58 wins, matching last year’s total, and a continuation of the trend established last season when Toronto went 17-5 in the 22 games Leonard sat out.
The Raptors were fourth in the NBA in defensive rating in 2018-19 and are second so far this year, even with six of their top seven rotation players missing at least 10 games due to injury and without Leonard and Green. Last season they were third in the league with a net rating of 5.8; this season they are fourth at 6.1.
And while Nurse would be the first to give the credit to the likes of Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, who will be playing in the all-star game, his ability to manage an ever-changing lineup, his willingness to introduce a range of defensive game plans and find ways to leverage various players’ strengths in a fairly egalitarian offence can’t be overlooked.
“Coaches don’t really get a lot of credit in this league,” said VanVleet. “They definitely do a good job putting us in good positions. They’re flexible, they listen to us, and with as little amount of practice time that we have, it’s very important that we have good communication, trust and I think that’s something that’s been building for the last year and a half. Even when we lose and we play bad, we pretty much know exactly what it is; we’re never searching for answers and that’s something you like to hang your hat on.”
Toronto’s win over the Pistons in front of a swath of its fans that flowed across the border and seemingly made up more than half the crowd at Little Caesars Arena — Siakam got MVP chants in the fourth quarter — was consistent with how the Raptors have got it done under Nurse all season.
They used a variety of defensive coverages, including a lot of zone to confuse the Pistons, who are lottery-bound after a season-ending injury to Blake Griffin. Missing Marc Gasol for the second straight game with a hamstring strain, they didn’t miss a beat as Serge Ibaka had another strong game as a starter, finishing with 21 points on 14 shots while Chris Boucher was energetic off the bench, contributing eight points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes.
The Raptors were led by Siakam, who had 30 points on 18 shots and seems to be getting stronger by the week since returning from his groin injury. VanVleet had 16 points, nine assists and eight rebounds while running the team expertly on a rare subpar night from Lowry [2-of-9 from the floor for seven points]. Defensively, they got better as the game went on – as seems to be their habit – and held the Pistons to 34.6 per cent shooting while forcing 17 turnovers.
Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, the Raptors led by 13 at the half, pushed their advantage to nine to start the fourth quarter, then started the final frame on a 20-5 run to extend the lead to 23 midway through the period, which was more than enough.
Even Nurse’s old boss had to give credit where it was due as the all-star game nod was solidified on his watch.
“It’s gonna be great for their staff,” Casey said. “As a head coach [the 2018 all-star game] was my first one. There’s no feeling like that, to go out and spend time with other players. It means you’ve done something right. [The Raptors are] competing for the top. It’s great for their staff to get that. It’s a feather in their cap. It’s on their resumés that they were an all-star coach. It’s an honour for them to be able to do that.”
An honour well-earned.