Nick Nurse turned in early after one of the most satisfying wins of the season on Sunday night, but at about 1 a.m. he found himself awake and checked his phone, which is when he learned the Toronto Raptors machine would once more have to keep moving ahead without a key piece.
The news was out that his long-time friend and suddenly former assistant coach Chris Finch had been taken on as a rare mid-season hire to replace Ryan Saunders, who was fired by the Minnesota Timberwolves Sunday night.
“I had about 50 or 60 text messages and I said ‘oh geez I didn’t even know it was out’” said Nurse. “So I knew it was out and then officially done.”
It will require some adjusting for the Raptors as well as they get ready to host Philadelphia at Amalie Arena on Tuesday night, trying to sweep their two-game series from the Eastern Conference-leading 76ers.
“We’ll just conjure some things up,” said Nurse, who relied heavily on Finch to refresh the Raptors offence this season and was just beginning to see the results. “I’ll probably try to take over most of the offensive duties here for a little bit, and obviously we’ve got some guys who’ve been around a while that know how things are run all over, offence, defence, special teams, kinda just do a quick re-org and go from there. I’m working through it right now, thinking through it right now, but we’ve got to re-org it here before we throw it up tomorrow, that’s for sure.”
It’s an inconvenience but in the bigger picture it’s more proof that the Raptors have built something worth imitating or stealing from, depending on your point of view. And they’ve built something sustainable, too.
With the reserves for the all-star game being announced on Tuesday there looms the real possibility that the Raptors’ seven-year streak of having at least one representative in the game might be coming to an end, though all of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam deserve consideration from the Eastern Conference coaches who vote on the seven available reserve spots.
But even if they all end up snubbed, it’s become clearer than ever during the Raptors’ 14-7 surge since starting the season in an uncharacteristic 2-8 hole that Toronto has become one of the rare organizations in sports that simply finds ways to succeed almost independent of specific personnel.
The short-hand for it is “culture” – a buzzword that’s hard to define but can be useful in explaining developments that lack a single obvious answer.
Whatever it is, the Raptors have it, and other teams want some of it. It’s why Raptors general manager Bobby Webster was seemingly linked to every executive opening before he signed his long-term deal with the club earlier this month, or why Nate Bjorkgren and now Finch have earned head coaching opportunities after spending time with Nurse as assistants, and why Adrian Griffin may be the next of his staff members to earn a shot as a head coach.
It’s why the Raptors went 17-5 without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup in 2018-19 – better than their winning percentage when he did play — and why they were on pace for a team-record 60 wins in 2019-20 even after Leonard and Danny Green left in free agency, a better mark than during their championship season and better than Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers could manage.
This season has proven the rule, rather than the exception: a well-coached team staffed with a smart, mature, competitive core and high-IQ depth pieces kept on their toes by a fluid rotation that offers opportunity for those playing well enough to seize it remains a threat in the East. It makes no sense, almost.
Since the summer of 2018 the Raptors have populated the rest of the NBA with the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, as well as Leonard and Green and yet remain damn good even if the inbound talent is a collection of journeymen who mostly stumbled at their last stop. Replacing Leonard with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should not be a viable path to remaining relevant, but somehow the Raptors make it work.
Sure, this season has been uneven at times and they certainly seemed to be close to crashing when they were 2-8 through 10 games and had the worst record in the league. Their highest-paid player, Siakam, seemed like he was in the process of climbing inside himself and was suspended for a game for a fairly minor temper tantrum. Nurse was calling out a different player by the day and – you could infer at least – was less than pleased with the mismatched roster he’d been handed after the Raptors lost both Ibaka and Gasol in free agency. A string of minor injuries made it difficult to build cohesion, offensively and defensively.
But somehow the sun keeps rising in the East, and the Raptors do too. Since their low point they have the fourth-best winning percentage league-wide and the second-most wins. They are one of four teams with a top-10 offence and top-10 defence and in the past 10 days they’ve beaten not only the star-studded Brooklyn Nets, but the Bucks twice and now the Sixers.
And they do all this regardless, it seems, of who’s playing or even coaching. Lowry remains a hugely impactful player – both by traditional and advanced statistical measures – but the Raptors have reeled off four straight wins without him, beginning with them knocking off the Bucks when he left the game at halftime. Going back to last season the Raptors are now 17-2 in games Lowry has been inactive for.
It all doesn’t make a lot of sense. Teams shouldn’t thrive when their best player can’t play and they shouldn’t improve when their best players leave to play elsewhere.
Losing a valuable voice like the one Finch brought is less than ideal. A good assistant coach shows the head coach a new way of doing things and prevents him from going down unproductive rabbit holes, and after years battling against each other in Britain and then coaching alongside each other at the London Olympics, Nurse trusted Finch implicitly.
Now Nurse will have to figure out how to keep things moving without him.
Not a problem, he’s used to it. You would think at some point the Raptors’ talent drain would begin to drown them, but for now they keep rolling towards their rightful place at or near the top of the conference standings.
It’s a remarkable thing that should never go unappreciated.