Nick Nurse and Chris Finch have history.
The pair began as rivals, became colleagues and eventually close friends as they each pursued their basketball fortunes against long odds in strange places.
On Wednesday night they made some history, as they became the first former head coaches from the British Basketball League to meet in an NBA game, with the Toronto Raptors and Minnesota Timberwolves, respectively.
It made for another landmark for each coach, who lack the pedigree that so many benefit from when they try to break into one of the most exclusive jobs in sports but have made up for it with their willingness to experiment, push boundaries and find ways to win and keep moving up the ranks.
“It’s kind of crazy to think that we’re here, given where we started,” said Finch, who was an assistant to Nurse with the Raptors last year until he left midway through the season to take the head coaching position with Minnesota, a perennial also-ran he’s helping turn around.
“We have great respect for each other. That trumps everything. Friendship is always there regardless. We’ve been really supportive. We lean on each other a lot, having come into a lot of different situations where we’ve experienced the same kind of pushback or obstacle or challenges, how we manage those things kind of as outsiders. We didn’t go to North Carolina, and we didn’t grow up in the league. So, there’s a lot of things you have to do to crack your way in.
Winning is a big part of it, and Nurse and Finch – unsurprisingly – have taken similar approaches to the task.
They have their teams playing almost as replicas, in terms of style: The Raptors lead the NBA in deflections, the Timberwolves are third; Toronto is fourth in points off turnovers while Minnesota is first, Toronto is second in offensive rebounds and the Timberwolves are third, and they are 29th and 30th, respectively, in defensive rebounding as they each coach an aggressive, switching style of defence that forces turnovers but leaves them prone to giving up rebounds.
Fittingly, they started the game as the seventh-ranked team in their respective conferences, each with 31 wins and each having already surpassed their win totals from the season before.
On this night, it was Nurse who will go into the all-star break with a win and just a smidge of bragging rights as Toronto shook off consecutive losses with a thorough performance in all facets of a 103-91 win.
The Raptors improved to 32-25 and are off until Feb. 25 when they resume their road trip with games in Charlotte, Atlanta, and Brooklyn after the break. Toronto is in seventh place in the East with 25 games left to play.
If they keep playing defence the way they did against Minnesota, they’ll be in good shape. The Timberwolves average 114 points a game – fourth-best in the league – and had scored 115 or more in 11 straight games, but Toronto held them to 39.5 per cent shooting and 10-of-42 from three.
The Raptors were led by Gary Trent Jr., who had 30 points in his hometown with his father and little brothers sitting courtside, while Pascal Siakam had 17 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. Perhaps most importantly they got some strong production from their bench, especially in the second half as Thaddeus Young chipped in with 10 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes and Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher combined for 16 points and 16 rebounds.
It was a close game, but Toronto pulled away steadily. They started the fourth quarter trailing 74-72 but a 9-0 run to end the third and to start the fourth helped Toronto take a three-point lead after trailing for the entire third quarter. Consecutive triples by Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa from either corner broke an 0-12 streak from deep going back to the middle of the first quarter. The run was pushed out 15-2 and the Raptors led by seven.
The Raptors were without all-star guard Fred VanVleet, who sat out after bruising his knee in Toronto’s 30-point loss New Orleans on Saturday night. Nurse said imaging on the knee was clear and VanVleet was sitting as more of a precaution. VanVleet is expected to attend the All-Star Game and take part in the three-point shooting contest.
Whether it was the sting of their 30-point loss in New Orleans, the pressure of playing without VanVleet or the electricity generated by a little pre-game skirmish between Trent and Pat Beverly – the notorious irritant was jousting with Trent for position on the jump ball – the Raptors came out flying.
Trent in particular, as he hit three quick threes and scored 13 points in the first six minutes of the game as Toronto jumped out to a 22-11 lead, an edge that peaked at 13 points before the Timberwolves whittled the Raptors lead to 30-23 heading into the second quarter.
“I love Gary, man, Gary’s gonna do Gary,” said Siakam of Trent and Beverly turning the temperature up to start the game. “… That’s a Trent thing. I know what he’s always gonna do, he’s gonna come in, he’s gonna fight, and it’s kind of a bad look for the other team if he gets going crazy early, you know it’ll be a bad night. Good for him, he continues to be aggressive and we need that from him, we also know he’s gonna give us the same energy and focus on defence, so, yeah, it’s great for us.”
Trent Jr.’s version? “Just lining up for the jump ball.”
The Raptors struggled at times. The Timberwolves played long stretches of zone against Toronto and their lack of three-point shooting and dribble-penetration in the absence of VanVleet began to show. Trent went cold and the Raptor shot just 9-of-24 for the period and 0-of-7 from deep as their misses fueled Minnesota’s transition game as they finished the half with a 51-49 lead and the quarter with a 7-2 edge in fast-break points. The Raptors bench was being outscored 28-9 at that point.
The Raptors reversed that in the second half, running up a 20-11 edge in bench scoring, with Young – a 15-year veteran – showing why the Raptors made the effort to trade for him.
“The experience, I think it shows, it really does,” said Nurse. “He’s in the right place, makes some great cuts behind the defence. I think he’s got a finishing game in his pocket, he can take it off the bounce a little bit, he can kinda play behind the basket and finish as well.
I think just overall for him to only be here a short time, not really know what we’re doing, you can see he knows how to play the game.”
The historical connection between Nurse and Finch made for some interesting pre-game story-telling, like the time Nurse and Finch met Queen Elizabeth II.
Nurse was Finch’s assistant for the British national team in the build-up to the 2012 Olympics in London, and one thing led to another.
“We were in the Olympic village, as you well know, everything you do around the Olympics when you’ve got to do something is quite a process, to get in and out and move and security, and all these things, are very difficult,” said Nurse. “I just remember somebody … opened up the door and said, ‘hey, if anybody wants to meet the Queen, come down now.’
“The first thing I said was, ‘oh man, what do we got to do? How much security? How long is that gonna take?’ She was down in the courtyard of the area where all the British athletes were staying, and we went down the stairs together, and they just grabbed seven people randomly, and there she was. She came up and, it was a very nice conversation. She said, ‘what do you do?’ And I said, ‘I’m with the senior men’s basketball team.’ And she said, ‘you’ve got to be quite tall to play basketball.’ And I said, ‘yeah, you do.’ That’s all true.”
A decade later the two men met on an NBA floor for the first time, and who would have believed that back then?