It was fitting that in a game featuring two old friends fulfilling coaching dreams years in the making, it was decided in part by a player on the floor thinking like a coach, and another leveraging abilities that can’t be taught.
Nick Nurse and Nate Bjorkgren used to stay up until the wee hours drawing up schemes one whiteboards to win close when Bjorkgren was his volunteer assistant and Nurse was a rookie head coach in the D-League with the Iowa Energy back in 2007-08.
The NBA seemed forever away, but they could always hope.
On Sunday afternoon, the two lifers from small-town Iowa were on opposing sidelines in the NBA for the first time, matching strategies and play calls in the first half of a two-game series that concludes Monday night.
But in crunch time it was Nurse and the Raptors who prevailed 107-102 against the Indiana Pacers, who are off to a nice start after Bjorkgren took over as head coach after two years with the Raptors as an assistant.
It was a tense, hard-fought game between teams that knew each other’s tactics and terminology inside out.
But it was a bit of on-the-fly basketball genius that made the difference.
The Raptors were leading by one with 25 seconds left when Malcom Brogdon – who the Raptors had collectively harassed into a miserable 5-of-22 shooting night with four turnovers – tried to attack Fred VanVleet, the savvy Raptors point guard.
VanVleet was giving up size – at barely six feet, he always does – and was on an island in the middle of the floor, with no help defenders coming.
There was only six seconds on the shot clock and VanVleet wisely used the time pressure to dictate the action. The result was Brogdon, off balance and being forced away from the basket and towards the sideline and VanVleet stripping the ball and eventually drawing a foul.
The game was sealed and VanVleet had it all figured out before it happened.
“I’m thinking in my head: make him take a tough two, I didn’t want him to shoot the pull-up three [and] I didn’t want him to get all the way to the rim,” said VanVleet, who finished with 21 points and four assists, yet is almost as good at dissecting the game as he is at playing it. “So, once I got him under control with driving it left, I knew the step-back [jumper] had to be coming at some point.
“So now I’m eating that space up as he puts his shoulder into me [and] I’m able to get my hands in there [for the strip],” said VanVleet who finished with three steals. “I play the defence I would not like to be guarded and so just trying to make him take a tough two at that point, was able to get my hands on it and the rest was history after that.”
The Raptors won their fifth game in six to improve to 7-9 on the season, dropping the Pacers to 9-7.
The Raptors won for the second straight game and third time this season without Kyle Lowry in the lineup as he continues to recover from an infected toe. Meanwhile Pascal Siakam, the Raptors other all-star, was a late scratch due to swelling in his left knee.
As a result, there was lot of coaching to be done. Nurse dusted off the likes of DeAndre Bembry for 21 minutes – matching his total from the first 14 games of the season and played Yuta Watanabe for a season-high 21 minutes as well. He started Stanley Johnson and ended up running through 11 players. Meanwhile, Bjorkgren broke out some of Nurse’s favourite tactics by using box-and-one and triangle-and-two formations to harass VanVleet, the Raptors' only experienced point guard with Lowry out.
But Nurse’s players were able to execute their game plan -- take away the Pacers' stars even if it meant allowing others to get their games going -- just a bit better than Bjorkgren’s Pacers, but Bjorkgren knew what he was up against coming in.
“Well, they've played in a lot of big games in their life,” Bjorkgren said of what he learned coaching in Toronto, including their championship run in 2019. “Guys like Kyle Lowry has seen about every defensive coverage on him, every play call that there is. He's played in this league a long time, so he has a good read of what plays are coming. His intelligence level is very high. Freddy VanVleet, same thing. Hasn't played in the league as long as Kyle has but just their level of IQ is very high, knowing tendencies of players, knowing tendencies of teams.
"You can learn a lot by being around guys like that, knowing that they've had to go out and guard a certain individual for so many times, maybe it's been 25 times in their life, they get to find out tendencies of what that player can do well and what they can't.”
The Raptors' other advantage was having OG Anunoby in their lineup as the 23-year-old wing put together a dominant two-way performance that only a handful of players in the league are capable of at this stage. He finished with a game-high 30 points on 9-of-16 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and five steals. He’s had moments like it the past – his 32-point, seven steal showing against Denver last year just before the season was put on hiatus is an example.
After struggling from the perimeter to start the season – he was shooting just 25 per cent from three after six games – Anunoby has caught fire from deep.
He was 22-of-37 coming into Sunday afternoon and then made his first three triples and finished 4-of-6 for the game, including calmly stepping into a three with 1:51 left that put the Raptors up four as the Pacers had cut Toronto’s eight-point fourth quarter lead to one.
“Just coming back from that road trip, just getting in the gym, working on form close to the basket and then stepping out and then just repeating the same shot,” was how Anunoby explained his extended hot streak.
But it was the rest of his game that makes the value Anunoby can deliver on the four-year, $72-million contract extension he signed on the eve of the regular season so exciting for the Raptors. He routinely was able to put the ball on the floor and bully his powerful six-foot-seven, 240-pound frame into the paint and all the way to the rim, using his quickness and length to force turnovers and steals while guarding everyone from point guards to power forwards.
He was more often than not the primary defender in a package along with Johnson that the Raptors used to neutralize Pacers big man Domantis Sabonis, who came into the game averaging 22 points, 12 rebounds and six assists but was held to 1-of-10 from the floor and just 13 points.
“I don’t really have a comparison player for him,” said Nurse. “He’s kind of a little bit unique that way because he guards all positions and we’re just seeing some expansion of his offence. But a lot of this -- it’s like we talked about with Norm [Powell] the other night -- comes with opportunity. … Take a couple of guys who take a good percentage of our offence out of [the lineup] and it has to shift somewhere.”
It shifted early as Anunoby had 11 points in the first quarter and 17 at the half as Toronto led 58-47 at the break, even with Nurse being forced into some of his most creative lineup juggling of the season.
The Raptors held Indiana to 40.2-per cent shooting and forced 19 turnovers while holding their two leading scorers – Brogdon and Sabonis -- to a combined 6-of-32 from the floor.
“They played hard, that’s for sure,” said Nurse. “Gotta really compliment the whole group there for putting in the effort. It’s good to be rewarded for that effort. Took all 48 minutes of work.”
Nurse understood the attractiveness of the pre-game story angle with his team taking on the one coached by his former assistant and old friend, but he didn’t want to dwell on it too much. He didn’t see it as an ending but the start of something.
“It’s obviously unique in the fact that we grew up 50 miles apart in towns of 8,000 and 10,000, in small-town Iowa both of us, and we’ve shared some really cool moments, obviously, competed against each other in some cool situations,” he said. “As I said pre-game, I hope this is one of many, many, many that we’re coaching against each other and they’re for a lot bigger stakes than today, too.”
The old friends get a chance to match wits again Monday night, but chances are it will come down to a smart player making a decision on the fly or one with special gifts continuing to figure out how best to use them.
The Raptors had VanVleet doing their thinking for them in crunch time Sunday and Anunoby flashing gifts that can’t be taught for most of the rest of the game.
No one could have coached it any better.