TORONTO – Over the course of the last couple of weeks, you’ve likely heard Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse say this phrase ad nauseam: “We’re trying to play the right way.”
Given the fact Nurse seems to not know who, exactly, he’ll have available to him right up until game time these days, it makes sense that he’s been trying to employ a more holistic coaching philosophy, putting into place a greater concept that can be applied to the entire team as opposed to narrowing in on specific aspects the team needs to shore up.
The results have been positive so far, with the team in the midst of a three-game win streak and in a dogfight with the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards for 10th-place in the Eastern Conference – the final play-in tournament spot.
These victories have come despite what has appeared to be a thinly-veiled effort from the team to better its draft position rather than make a concerted push for the play-in tournament with names like Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby quickly becoming a common sight on Toronto’s injury report.
Toronto will play the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday but have yet to submit an injury report for the game – something not entirely uncommon these days – but when asked about an injury update after his team practiced Tuesday afternoon, Nurse couldn’t say what everyone’s status is.
That all seems to be out of his control these days.
So, he now turns his attention to what he can control, and that’s ensuring the players who are able to play are as prepared as possible and “playing the right way.” That is to say, the team is competing hard on defence, sharing the ball on offence and are making an honest effort every game to try to win it, no matter who is out there on the court.
For those looking to see the team tank for a better draft pick, that all must sound a lot like nails scratching on a chalkboard, but this is the honest truth, and the proof has been seen in the positive play we’ve seen of late from some of the Raptors’ lesser lights.
For example, there were the excellent performances from Paul Watson Jr. and Yuta Watanabe on Friday against the Orlando Magic, when they both went for career highs in scoring with Watson dropping 30 and Watanabe 21.
This was followed up with a feel-good Sunday when it was announced that Freddie Gillespie had been signed to a second 10-day contract with the team. A signing that was quickly followed up by Montreal native Chris Boucher exploding against fellow Montreal man Luguentz Dort and the Oklahoma City Thunder in a game that, of course, also featured Khem Birch of Montreal, too.
The additions of Gillespie and Birch has helped shore up what has been a dreadful centre situation that’s plagued the Raptors all season long, and with key players out, Boucher stepped up large, scoring 31 points and making a career-best six three-pointers against the Thunder.
But, of all these highlights, the best news probably came Monday when it was announced that Watanabe saw his two-way contract converted into a standard one for the rest of the season, something that will see him earn about $230,000 more over the rest of the season compared to if he had stayed on his two-way contract.
“Me and my agent had been talking about this for about a week. I actually signed the form right after the game, right after the last game,” said Watanabe of the new contract he inked Tuesday. “Definitely, I was very happy. I was super excited. This is what I’ve been working for. I’ve been very happy. I’m motivated more than ever, and ready to work.”
Added Nurse: “We thought he deserved it. We had the roster spot to do it with, he's been a good pro, a good player and he's working hard and I think – again, I don't want to misspeak here – but I would say that he's certainly under consideration to be part of this team going forward.”
Word of Watanabe’s deal being made into a standard contract was universally praised and for good reason. He’s the exact kind of player with the exact kind of attitude Nurse and the Raptors try to bring in.
“We brought him in for a reason of what he brought as a versatile defender with length, energy player, offensive cutter,” said Nurse. “He's got some versatility, we were intrigued by him to bring him in in the first place. He's had just one little dip down, I think, when he had the injury and it extended a little after that. Then everything else has been positive. So I think he's done well. He's done very well and played hard, worked hard, good pro, good person. A lot of characteristics we like in our organization.”
“My contract changed, but what I have to do won’t change,” said Watanabe. “I have to keep doing what I have been doing. Be out there, bring a lot of energy, play defence, grab rebounds, run some offence, play aggressive, stuff like that. Next year is not guaranteed yet, so I just got to keep showing what I can do.”
All the things Watanabe listed off is a good example of what Nurse has meant by trying to “play the right way.”
With Watanabe, however, he’s had the advantage of being with the team the entire season to learn not just the so-called “right way” to play but also Nurse’s sometimes-complicated offensive and defensive systems, something that quite a few players on the team haven’t had the luxury of.
For example, Gary Trent Jr., who just came over in the trade with the Portland Trail Blazers at the trade deadline, is still getting up to speed with everything almost four weeks into his Raptors tenure.
“It’s just learning everything I can. From the littlest things down to help defence,” said Trent. “Where I just came from it’s completely different. The offence is kind of different too. So, every day just getting better as much as I can whether it’s locking in during practice or staying 15, 20 minutes after and running through the plays. Running through the plays 20 or 30 minutes before the game with our shootaround. So, trying to learn as much as I can with the circumstances we are in with COVID. There are only certain times you can practice or watch film sessions as a group so learning as much as I can on the fly.”
Despite all the newness, however, there’s steady progress being made by Trent. Nurse believes he’s about halfway there with learning his system and is confident that he’ll be able to get things down pat before the end of the regular season – even with just 14 games left to play.
“It doesn't really feel like the end of the season, to me,” said Nurse. “I think since the trade, we've upped our practice time considerably. Practice availability, shootaround. Not like they used to be but still on the court, spending some time, and things like that. More on the road, figuring out walkthroughs, just a lot more film, just a lot more teaching, and time together. Probably for this time of year a lot more.
“But it's because we're trying to get all these guys integrated quickly and we're trying to improve and I might as well say it today, we're trying to play the right way.”
Nurse was half-joking when he mentioned that last bit there, but thanks to COVID protocols loosening just a little bit more, he’s been able to sneak in more practices and teach more than he likely has all season, and the results are showing of late.
So no matter who’s available to him, and regardless of how little time is left on the season, true to his word, Nurse has this Raptors team steadily improving and looking to, you guessed it, play the right way.