Like a lot of people around the NBA, Nick Nurse found himself transfixed by what went down Wednesday afternoon, when news that James Harden was being traded to the Brooklyn Nets began to filter out.
Deals don’t come much bigger, and the Toronto Raptors head coach was taking stock like anyone else.
“It was a heck of a story yesterday, that's for sure,” he said before his club took the floor against the Charlotte Hornets at Amalie Arena in Tampa, trying to stop the bleeding after a 2-8 start and a 1-3 road trip that featured plenty of encouraging signs but only one win.
In that context, the Harden trade hits different. It’s Nurse who now has to figure out not only how to punch through the top of the Eastern Conference that now looks – on paper – even tougher with Harden lining up with Kevin Durant and (presumably) Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, but how to keep pace with other teams in the conference that seem to have improved too.
For example, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers are both ahead of the Raptors in the standings – not that special given Toronto entered play Thursday night ranked 14th in the East – and both picked up good players in the fallout from the Nets-Rockets deal. Cleveland came away with former Nets centre Jarrett Allen, one the of the league’s better young big men, and the Pacers got Caris LeVert who averaged 20.3 points, 9.8 assists and six rebounds for Brooklyn against Toronto in the playoffs last year.
“I think that a lot of people did good on that trade,” Nurse said. “That's three teams in our [conference] that probably did the deal hoping they were all gonna benefit. I guess that remains to be seen.”
What is evident is advancing through the East is a tougher task than it has been in years past.
The Hornets – who the Raptors hosted Thursday night and again on Saturday – are a case in point as they arrived in Tampa as winners of four of five and one of the teams Toronto might have to squeeze past to regain a playoff spot, this after Charlotte finished with the third-worst record in the league last year.
But the Hornets struck gold with lanky young point guard LaMelo Ball who looks like a star in the making, playing the game easily even at just 19-years-old, and Charlotte looks like they made a smart signing in adding former Celtic Gordon Hayward in free agency. Ball is a triple-double threat every night and Hayward is putting up career numbers as the Hornets' primary offensive option.
The East doesn’t have very many guaranteed win nights anymore, and the Raptors could use a few if they want to push their playoffs streak to eight seasons and their streak of winning at least one playoff round to six.
It will have to happen incrementally and the Raptors demonstrated that they are determined to get the process started sooner with a much-needed 111-108 win that started out as a laugher and ended up a nail-biter. The Raptors survived a late Hornets comeback from down 11 with 5:37 left to play, and were lucky a wide-open PJ Washington triple with three seconds left -- that likely would have forced overtime -- missed.
It was the reverse of their last two games against Golden State and Portland where the Raptors had shots at the end to win and they rimmed out.
“It’s funny how that works,” Nurse said. "Against Golden State, we play that absolutely perfectly and come down on the wrong side of that play and tonight we play it not very perfectly at all and come out on the right side of it. So isn’t it a funny game?”
The win improved Toronto to 3-8 and dropped Charlotte to 5-5. The Hornets occupy the eight and final playoff spot and the Raptors trail them by two games.
Toronto caught a break with Hayward out with a strained hip, while Ball delivered 14 points and 11 assists – several of them spectacular.
But apart from their inability to solve the Hornets’ zone in the fourth quarter, a number of the positive trends that had been glimmering on the Raptors' road trip shone in full as Toronto otherwise took advantage of a seemingly dead-legged Hornets club playing on the second night of a back-to-back. They seemed poised to run away in the second half as the Raptors expanded a nine-point halftime lead to 18 when Stanley Johnson stepped into a wide-open three at the top of the arc with 2:29 left in the third.
The Hornets pushed back hard as they used a 15-2 run from that point to cut the Raptors' lead to five as Toronto didn’t score a field goal until nearly five minutes were gone in the fourth quarter and ended up with just five field goals in the entire quarter. A lay-up by Pascal Siakam and a corner three a moment later helped Toronto get moving, and the Raptors were able to grind it out down the stretch in part by hustling around a Hornets zone defence to vacuum up five offensive rebounds that helped Toronto keep their lead even as their offence cooled.
The Raptors will need to be better prepared if they face more zone on Saturday.
“We'll have to make an adjustment, we'll have to figure it out,” Kyle Lowry said. “And we'll make adjustments. And we'll go from there. But I think we felt like we got some shots that we needed, and we pulled the fourth quarter out … we found a way to get the win. You guys know I say, ‘a win is a win is a win’. We just got to continue to build.”
Whether either team ends up in the playoffs or not, it’s safe to say that there likely won’t be too many games like this if they get there -- the game was played at a sprinter’s pace and for long stretches it seemed like defence was optional, at least until the fourth quarter.
But the Raptors can take satisfaction in a number positive indicators: Toronto had 33 assists on 40 field goals and had six players hit double figures, with Lowry supporting Chris Boucher with 16 points and 12 assists.
And Boucher’s game is proving that it can travel as he once again provided an invaluable spark off the bench – so much so that after Nurse gave Aron Baynes a start after sitting him for three games, Boucher started in the second-half for the second consecutive game on his way to a career-high tying 25 points along with 10 rebounds. It was a pair of Boucher lay-ups set up by Lowry against a Hornets zone that helped Toronto get over the hump down the stretch.
“He's playing extremely well. I think his confidence is there. I think, you know, when a guy gets paid and he kind of relaxes a little. He kind of feels comfortable, understanding he knows where he is,” said Lowry of Boucher, who signed a $6.5 million contract in the off-season. “And now he knows it's consistent minutes. He knows what he's going to do. He knows his abilities. And I think he's just confident in who he is.
"I think last year, you know he was playing sparingly here and there, and when you start to do things, block shots, get some dunks, I think people start to know who you are, you get a little bit more confident in yourself. I think he's just confident in who he is and who he's become. It took a while, but he's in a position where he knows he's going to play, and he knows he has to play on our team to help us.”
The win hopefully sets the Raptors on track at the start of a five-game homestand as they look up from the bottom of their conference.
“I think the reality of this league is that there's always a sense of urgency on a night-to-night basis,” Nurse said. “I think that the pressure to win each night is real. … but I think in the bigger scheme of things, there's  games to go. That's a lot of basketball to be played. ... We have our chance to get the ship righted and get on the 'W' side of the column, and take it from there.”
They have to because the Eastern Conference isn’t standing still, waiting for them.