Raptors’ Scariolo flourishes as acting head coach in unusual circumstances

Toronto Raptors assistant coach Sergio Scariolo talks to center Aron Baynes (46) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. Scariolo is filling in for head coach Nick Nurse, who is under coronavirus protocol. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

TORONTO – In the 25-plus season history of the Toronto Raptors, there has never been a night quite like the one the team experienced on Friday, and there’s a good chance we’ll see more nights like it in the coming days.

About five-and-a-half hours before Toronto tipped off against the Houston Rockets, the team issued a press release stating that “due to health and safety protocols, six members of the Raptors’ coaching staff, including head coach Nick Nurse, will not be on the bench.”

According to Sportsnet’s Michael Grange, one member of Toronto’s coaching staff tested positive for COVID-19, leading the five others to be put into health and safety protocols through contact tracing.

Additionally, Raptors star forward Pascal Siakam then popped up on the 5:30 p.m. ET NBA injury report, indicating he would miss Friday’s game, also in health and safety protocols.

So, the Raptors came into Friday night’s game down their bench boss, five assistants and their leading scorer.

And while they fortunately saw the Rockets, who came into Friday’s matchup having lost nine straight games, that’s still a lot of key personnel for any NBA team to be without and still expect to be successful.

Thankfully, the Raptors aren’t just any NBA team.

A club renowned for its scouting and player development, as it turns out, the Raptors have some real talent among their coaching staff as well.

Down six coaches, the Raptors were unable to field a full bench, and so it was up to Jim Sann, Mark Tyndale, Jamaal Magloire and acting head coach Sergio Scariolo to turn the right dials and push the correct buttons, and they did an outstanding job of it. Toronto managed to come away with a 122-111 victory on Friday night, climbing back to .500 by improving to 17-17.

Though that’s only a four-man unit on the bench, there’s a wealth of experience and knowledge on it, particularly with acting head coach Scariolo, who is a legendary European club and international coach. Fortunately, Scariolo made it out of quarantine in time for Friday’s emergency situation, after attending his own head coaching duties with the Spanish national team.

“I just joked with him that the last team he coached he was out in Poland and I said you should be ready for this,” said Raptors GM Bobby Webster, who updated the media of the odd situation his team faced before the game started.

More than just being ready for this opportunity in unique conditions, Scariolo flourished. He not only picked up his first head coaching win as an NBA coach (although the credit will go to Nurse officially), but he even won his first coaching challenge in the game — a fact he’ll be able to lord over Nurse when he eventually returns to the bench. It took Nurse eight attempts before he got his first challenge victory.

“When we hired him we obviously wanted the international experience,” Webster added about Scariolo. “Coach Nurse comes from that background, Masai has a ton, I value a lot of that as well, so initially it was just, ‘Hey, help us think about the NBA in a different way.’ But I think what we’ve grown to appreciate more about him, as you probably know, he’s very even-keel, incredible ability to see the game, make adjustments, not outspoken.

“He very much knows his role and so I think that’s what we’re excited to see now in the head coaching role.”

After just one game the returns have been good for Scariolo, an encouraging sign for Toronto moving forward because odds are Toronto’s depleted bench situation will continue for the next few games or so as Nurse and the five others work their way through the NBA’s protocol rules.

“I really don’t know. We are going on the fly, we are trying to make a plan for the next day and at this point it’s more than enough to make sure we know what we can do the next day,” said Scariolo after the game when asked how long he might be the acting head coach for. “This is something which is a good take, within the bad situation we are going through everybody all over the world, we are learning that we have tools and capacity to react to really weird situations, to emergency situations … like this or I imagine a hundred more that happen all over the world to every person, to every company, every sports club, whatever.

“We are learning that some times we love to have a great plan going from Day 1 to the last one, it’s good to know that we are able to react to different circumstances. We learned how not to panic and try to face what’s going on with a positive attitude.”

Fortunately, according to Grange, it looks like Siakam could be available for the Raptors in their next game on Sunday.

Regardless of that bit of good news, however, being without your head coach and a handful of key assistants would make the next few games challenging.

That can be alleviated, though, by Scariolo’s experience and expertise, and because the Raptors have coaches on the floor in players like Kyle Lowry.

When word first broke that the Raptors would be without a sizable amount of their coaching staff, a joke went around Twitter that Lowry could be a player-coach. Unfortunately, because of a rule within the CBA, this fun idea isn’t allowed — but that didn’t stop him from being one in spirit by leading the team with his play.

Lowry finished Friday with a triple-double of 20 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. He appeared to understand the situation his team was facing and stepped up accordingly.

In particular, this was seen in the fourth quarter, when early in the frame he picked up his fifth foul of the evening, allowing Houston to cut a lead that had been as large as 23 down to six. However, as soon as the Raptors point guard checked back in with 4:17 to play, Toronto outscored Houston 13-8 to close the game.

Lowry finished the game plus-22.

This was yet another strong performance from Lowry – who had 24 points and seven assists on 9-for-13 shooting against the Miami Heat on Wednesday – after returning from a four-day layoff with a thumb injury.

Lowry is a player who, historically, has managed to raise the level of his game when the Raptors need it. With the team possibly looking at a period of time without its general and five lieutenants, now seems like one of those times for Lowry to raise his game with the club about to hit the all-star break next week.

But as great as Lowry performed during the game Friday, his greatest accomplishment probably came after it, when he made sure to hold onto the game ball and hand it to Scariolo to mark the milestone of his first NBA win.

“Kyle is always extremely attentive to those details, the little things which really make a difference to make a team feel like a family, a group of people who are really taking care for each other and I really appreciate that,” Scariolo said of Lowry’s gesture. “I will keep that basketball very close to other basketballs that my players give to me after a medal or a championship or whatever. It’s going to be really top, even if it’s not the championship basketball it’s going to be top in my priority, my window when I will be able to create a little museum of all my stuff which are now in boxes.”

This is indicative of the kind of leadership the Raptors have in-house, and is a good reason why they should be able to make it through this period without Nurse and their assistants – however long that will last.

“We’ve got guys who can kind of pick up some of the slack so to speak,” said Fred VanVleet, who didn’t shoot the ball particularly well Friday but still finished with 25 points. “The best teams are the ones that the players are leading and teaching and holding each other accountable, and I think that’s the direction that we’re headed. We’ve been that since I’ve been here, and obviously this year has been a bit different but I think we’ve still got that core essence of having vets and guys who are doing it at a high level, being the guys who are holding other people accountable as well, so that’s a big part of it.

“But it’s not all the players, I want to give those guys who stepped up some credit as well, Sergio coached a helluva game, Jim Sann, Jamaal Magloire and Mark Tyndale, all of those guys were great stepping and filling the voids of the guys who were out.”

Though it has come in an odd way, the Raptors are facing their first real COVID-19 crisis of the season. But if Friday’s game is any indication – even if it was against the lowly Rockets – Toronto has the necessary leadership and experience both on and off the court to weather the storm.

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