TORONTO -- Anyone who has ever watched Nick Nurse even just in small interview clips probably gets the impression that the Toronto Raptors head coach would be a pretty cool guy to hang out with.
How could he not be, right? He plays the guitar, has rockstar friends, is a hell of a basketball coach and just, generally, has an overall friendly demeanour.
And, as it turns out, this is the way Nurse has always been -- probably minus the rockstar friends, of course.
Early in his coaching career, far away from the bright lights of the NBA in the British Basketball League, Nurse battled with Chris Finch on the sidelines, the two men developing something of a rivalry with one another whenever their teams faced off.
One of those years, however, Nurse decided to extend an olive branch to Finch when he decided to invite his rival coach over for a Christmas party he was throwing. An invitation that, without the two men knowing, put into motion what has become nearly a lifelong relationship with one another.
“It was after a game that we played and it was right before Christmas and he had invited me to a Christmas party that was happening at his house and he lived about 30 miles away from me, we were big rivals at the time and I just went over there for a Christmas party and, really, that was kind of the start of it,” Finch said in a Raptors Zoom call Friday. “We became fast friends ever since and built up a relationship.”
Finch is the Raptors’ newest assistant coach, replacing Nate Bjorkgren who was named the Indiana Pacers’ new head coach back in October.
His history with Nurse is oddly long and similar with the pair both coming from the BBL, the two of them working together as part of the Great Britain men’s national basketball program ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and even sharing experiences with each man coaching the Houston Rockets' G League affiliate the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
The odd magnetism Finch and Nurse had with each other split off when Finch took an assistant job with the Rockets and Nurse with the Raptors, but now, after stops in Denver and New Orleans for Finch, this dynamic duo will be joining forces once again, and the two of them couldn’t be more excited about this reunion.
“We’ve been kind of circling each other for a long time, sharing the same journey. I guess it was inevitable in a lot of ways,” Finch said of how he and Nurse always seem to reconnect professionally.
He later added: “We always respected each other and admired the way our teams played, but having then worked together with the Olympic program -- it was just a phenomenal experience because he’s just such an outstanding coach, I learned so much along the way at the time and we were able to share ideas -- and then both going through the Houston program and being challenged in that capacity was also a great experience for both of us.”
Then Nurse in regards to Finch from earlier this week: “Obviously I’ve known him for a long time, right? Coached against each other, coached with each other in Britain, coached against each other in the D-League, so we've been on really similar paths, I think he's one of the best offensive minds in the NBA, so we're lucky to have him. I enjoy him from an overall perspective, I enjoy him from an overall basketball perspective, as well. He's a hell of a coach.”
These are glowing words from a pair of friends who seem to have nothing but time when it comes to speaking about one another, but it wasn’t always this way. Before that fateful Christmas party invitation, the two only interacted with each other as road buddies during their not-so-glamorous days as scouts.
“I think the first time I met him was at the Adidas Eurocamp, which was held in England at the time,” said Finch. “I think Tony Parker was the MVP of the camp, so that gives you a timeframe. It was just a casual conversation and we have a mutual friend, a journalist in the United Kingdom, and we never, really, had connected before that but we were all sitting around just talking outside in the parking lot. I, of course, had played against him [in the BBL], he was coaching at the time I was still playing.
“The first time we shared any in-depth conversations was at, and I don’t know if I can pick a specific moment, but we would scout, we would drive all over England and watch other teams play and we would just old school, like high school, college way and just sit in the stands and just scout and we would sit with each other and watch the game and talk and laugh and joke around just kinda on a general level.
“But it was interesting, whenever we played against each other within the next week or so we’d never sit with each other, we’d always sit on opposite sides of the gym. So probably during those scouting trips is when we got to know each other a little bit better.”
Such is the way of things in competitive pro sports. However, the competition between one another ultimately seems like what brought them together. Both being basketball junkies with similar viewpoints and philosophies on the game, this reunion between the two of them figures to pay immediate dividends for the Raptors -- especially on the offensive end.
Finch comes to the Raptors being touted as somewhat of an offensive mastermind, something that Nurse believes is more than just good marketing.
“He's one of those guys that when you sit down and watch [his teams] play, you see that they're organized, and they're sharing the ball, they're cutting hard, they're executing at pace,” said Nurse. “They're efficient. Just those kinds of things that make a good offence. And he's done it when he was with the Rockets and when he was with Denver, with New Orleans. He's had some really good years kind of as an offensive coordinator.
“I mean, I've coached against him a lot, too, and his teams were always really hard to guard. Even teams he coached in the NBA were always really hard to guard. He's high-level. The numbers usually back up where he's been.”
And, as more supporting evidence behind the words Nurse had for his new assistant, when asked, generally, about what makes a good offence in the NBA, Finch offered some interesting insight not normally heard from coaches.
“I think the game now is so fast and so fluid and I’ve been fortunate enough to always kinda want to play that way. So, to me, the most important thing right now is to be highly unpredictable,” Finch said. “When you get to the playoffs, everybody kind of knows who you are and what you do and what you do well and that’s where they start to try to stop you. The more randomness that you can have, the more purpose you can have within that randomness, the more structure that you can have is always great, but at some point the game comes down to you playing basketball in some sort of random mindset and if you can do that really well from the beginning it’s really hard for teams to guard you.
“And I think one of the calling cards of a lot of teams that I’ve been associated with, is that we’ve been able to maintain that type of unpredictability.”
Expanding on this further, Finch mentioned ways he believes the Raptors might be able to improve their own offence from a season ago. A team that was deadly in transition, but could be -- and ultimately was by the Celtics in the post-season -- stymied in the half-court, Finch offered up some ways he believes the team might unlock better scoring opportunities for itself when the ball must be walked up the floor.
“I think we can improve our cutting. I think we can improve as it pertains to our cutting and our movement on the floor,” Finch said. “I think we can tweak some of our spacing rules. I think also finding new opportunities for the likes of Pascal [Siakam] to score, or put the ball in his hands to create opportunities for his teammates, a little more unpredictability there, maybe some misdirection.”
The ideas Finch has for Siakam are of particular interest. The Raptors all-star had a poor showing in the playoffs as the isolation of the bubble appeared to get the better of him, directly impacting his play. This season, he begins his four-year, $130-million max contract and the pressure will be on him to perform up to task, whether that's fair or not.
As such, some of the ideas Finch has to not only make Siakam more productive but just an overall better player would be ones that sound like they should be experimented with immediately as it would be to the benefit of not only him, but the team as a whole as well.
“I think what you see right now in the playoffs is teams are really just loading up. They’re loading up to these really dynamic [players], the Giannises, the Pascals. I mean they’re selling out to stop these guys, and we need to get them comfortable playing in different capacities, if you will, during the regular season so when he sees playoff-style defences and schemes -- which you don’t see every night in the league but you’ll see from some teams -- you’ve gotta get him comfortable with all these looks,” Finch said.
He added later, speaking specifically about Siakam’s game: “I think he’s extremely dynamic. I think we can probably generate some more playmaking from him. You saw in the bubble what a crowd he’s going to draw. And let’s be honest, that’s when we’re trying to be good, at the end of the season when it matters most. So creating offence for his teammates. If you can get two on the ball you are getting an advantage pretty much everywhere else. I think these are things we can use to our advantage with him, rather than just kind of a great scorer, which he has been able to become, in all kinds of different capacities. Now we can turn some of that attack mindset into shots for others. I think that’s one.
“I think we can improve his three-point shooting. That has a lot to do not just with the practice he will put in, in getting up shots with his form and his approach, but also just his shot selection. When you start looking at these things they become quite granular. Not all three-point shots are the same. There are some you can trend towards and some you can stay away from.”
Even more interestingly is the fact Finch sees similarities between Siakam and Pelicans all-star Brandon Ingram, of whom Finch worked with last season in New Orleans turning him into the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
“We did things similarly with Brandon Ingram. We did a great job of trending him towards things that suited him a little bit better and it turned out to be a Most Improved Player of the season award,” said Finch. “That was mostly due to his buy-in. We got to get Pascal to buy into this stuff, but I think, from what I understand, he wants to be great in the playoffs, like all great players do. And I think that gives us an excellent teaching point to go forward from because that’s where we are really going to start.”
It’s clear that Finch has already put in a lot of thought into what he wants to accomplish with the Raptors and he seems eager to get started.
And with his old pal Nurse by his side, he’ll certainly have all the freedom and opportunity he’ll need to accomplish what he wants to with the Raptors.