There were plenty of unknowns heading into this season for the Toronto Raptors, but one constant:
Whatever juice the roster had to give, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse would find a way to squeeze it out of them.
There were moments it looked like he was stuck with a lemon — the Raptors were in 12th place 31 games into the season and looked to be there on merit — but he found a way to make his own brand of lemonade.
Now they can savour a long, cold, drink of the good stuff as they get ready to take on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Game 1 is scheduled for Saturday night.
The Raptors dropped a meaningless game to the New York Knicks, 105-94, on the road at Madison Square Gardens to conclude an impressive regular season with a 48-34 record, or about 10 more wins than oddsmakers were predicting. Toronto was locked into the fifth seed, win, or lose, so they rested Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam as they waited to find out which of Boston or Philadelphia would finish fourth.
Regardless of what happens from here — and hey, the Raptors are 3-1 against Philadelphia this season and have a history of success against Joel Embiid — for the moment the regular season should be savoured, and Nurse’s role in it should be celebrated.
It’s an over-simplification to credit coaches when teams over-achieve and blame them when they fall short of expectations. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that, in the hands of a lesser coach, this version of the Raptors could have slid into the draft lottery and no one would have blinked an eye.
“I think coach Nurse has done a tremendous job,” said Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin, who filled in on the bench for Nurse after he bowed out with a non-COVID illness. “I’m not just saying that because I work for him, but every year in my eyes he should be up there with Coach of the Year, done a phenomenal job with our team and just bringing us together.
“He gets the most out of his teams and I think that’s the quality of a great coach. Management does a great job of giving us pieces, but the head coach has to maximize those pieces and I think coach Nurse does that better than anyone I’ve been around.”
The Raptors do have plenty of pieces but making them fit was a challenge.
This is a roster without a traditional centre, without a proven backup point guard, that lacks shooting and for much of the year didn’t have anything close to a quality bench rotation. Their best player, Siakam, didn’t play for the first 10 games and was ineffective for the next ten. Their other best player, VanVleet, has been reduced to part-time status since the all-star break with only glimpses of his all-star form when his knee allows. This was supposed to be OG Anunoby’s breakout year and he’s played 48 games in between injuries. Nurse has played rookie Scottie Barnes at point guard and centre on consecutive nights he’s led the team and all first-year players in minutes played.
And this is all after losing Kyle Lowry, the Raptors icon, in free agency.
It could easily have gone the wrong way, but Nurse made it all work. The NBA’s coach of the year in 2019-20 has done even better work with less this time around.
It starts with the fact that the fourth-year head coach sees all glasses as half full and is more than prepared to do whatever it takes to top them up from there.
He didn’t see the Raptors for their flaws, but for their strengths, and their potential.
“I don’t want to sound like whatever here, but I was expecting to be sitting here [in fifth place],” said Nurse Sunday. “When we started the season and everyone picked us 11th, I was like, ‘No way, this is a playoff team. This is a playoff team. We’re not that bad. We’re a playoff team.’ I put those expectations on them all and the coaching staff and here we are. That’s good. I expected to be a playoff team”
There have been two critical components those expectations being met if not exceeded — well, three, if you count the tendency of US-based pundits and bookmakers to consistently under-estimate the Raptors’ overall talent.
The first has been the way Nurse identified a way to play that worked to his roster’s strengths. The Raptors weren’t a great shooting team and lacked the kind of paint or post punch to generate endless trips to the free-throw line, so what to do?
Take more shots. That’s the simplest way to explain what the Raptors do well. They may not have a single big body, but they have lots of pretty big ones and Nurse has licensed them to chase down offensive rebounds to create more shot opportunities — as long as they work to get back in transition too.
The result? The Raptors are second in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage and No. 2 in second-chance points while also ranking ninth in opponent fast-break points.
Similarly, the Raptors’ send double teams all over the floor and trust length, hustle and smart rotations will see them through if and when the ball starts flying around.
As a result, they are second in steals and second in points off turnovers. Add it up and Toronto leads the NBA in the difference between the number of shots they take (91.3) and the number of shots they allow (84.3).
That’s how you win nearly 50 games while ranking 27th in True Shooting percentage. How bad is that? The only three teams below them are Orlando, Detroit and Oklahoma City, who have been battling each other for the worst record in the NBA all season.
It doesn’t always work but it gives them a chance most nights. It’s the other element of Nurse’s approach that may be even more impressive, though.
Time and time again he’s shown the willingness to be patient with players.
It’s not that he’s blind to individual players' flaws or that he’s prone to sugar-coating.
As VanVleet told me for my feature on Siakam:
“Nick’s got an open the door. You might not always like what you hear, but he’ll give it to you straight.”
Nurse and Siakam were on tense terms at points last season, but that didn’t prevent him from continuing to give Siakam plenty of reps as the lead ball-handler in crunch time. It didn’t always work out, but would Siakam be as comfortable in those moments as he has been so often this season without the opportunity to stumble, painful as it was at the time?
Maybe not. Some coaches wouldn’t be able to get past the difficulties he had with Siakam last season. Nurse did, and Siakam has delivered an all-NBA season.
Similarly, two key cogs in the Raptors' late-season surge — they were tied for the league lead in wins since the all-star break before the ball went up last night — were players a lot of fans, and no shortage of coaches, might have given up on based on their early season play.
Precious Achiuwa looked overwhelmed in October, November and even December and yet over the last half of the season, Achiuwa has averaged 10 points and six rebounds off the bench and is shooting 40 per cent from three while proving one of the most versatile and switchable defenders around. There were stretches early in the year Achiuwa wasn’t shooting 40 per cent at the rim. But Nurse stuck with the 22-year-old and the reward is a rotation-quality player with significant upside.
Meanwhile, Chris Boucher was in a deep funk early in the season. Everything he tried didn’t work. His breakout season a year ago looked like a one-time thing. He couldn’t shoot and the rest of his game was being affected.
Nurse stuck with him and encouraged him to simplify things. The result is Boucher has been instant energy off Nurse’s bench in the second half of the schedule, using his length to defend the rim and fly out to shooters and fearlessly pursue offensive rebounds at the other end. The shooting has begun to come around.
It’s never too late to get better.
“You know that’s part of what we do,” said Nurse. “We really dig into player development. It’s a 12-month-a-year process for us. We just try to coach the best we can, put the absolute best game plans out there every night to play a team, and I think our guys respond to that.
“They get into the player development. They start seeing some success. That builds. And then they start executing the game plans pretty well here the last couple months. They weren’t doing it real good here the first three months, but they have the last three for sure. That’s been enjoyable to see.”
Nurse should get Coach of the Year consideration for engineering a regular season no one but him saw coming.