SportsCoach Nurse has Raptors thinking inside and outside the box in NBA Finals
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OAKLAND—It has always been about the feel and the moment and wilful improvisation forcoach Nick Nurse, and the stage and the circumstances and the stakes these days won’t change that.
He coaches as much by his heart as he does by the numbers, asking his players to do things that are out of the norm, to try something because he feels it might work.
It’s freeing and it’s fun and it’s what he is.
“I guess (Nurse) is a guy that thinks out of the box,” Kawhi Leonard said before the Raptors practised ahead of Game 3 against the Golden State Warriors. “He is experimental, and a lot of times what he draws up on the board works.”
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Nurse has been at his improvisational best in the NBA Finals that resume here Wednesday night. His team needed a spark in the final stages of Game 2, so he had the Raptors play a box-and-one defence. Four guys in a zone, Fred VanVleet chasing Stephen Curry around. No one had seen it in years and certainly not in the NBA.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about going box-and-one, what do you guys think?’” Nurse said here Tuesday. “And they were like, ‘Well, what does that look like?’
“I drew the box up and who would be where. They kind of liked the looks of Marc (Gasol) and Kawhi being down (near the basket), and Kyle (Lowry) up and Fred chasing. Kyle was kind of the one that said, ‘Yeah, man, that will work. Let’s go.’”
The Raptors held the Warriors without a basket for about six minutes as it unfolded. The only bucket the eventual winners got was Andre Iguodala’s dagger with seven seconds left, a play that was in no way related to the unorthodox scheme.
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“I don’t know if it worked or not. I don’t know the numbers or whatever it was, but it was pretty innovative,” Lowry said. “The first time a team has probably ever played box-and-one in the NBA ever. So you give Nick Nurse credit for that.”
Would anyone be surprised if the Raptors came out and played triangle-and-two in Game 3, or ran the old “picket fence” play from the movie Hoosiers?
They shouldn’t if they’ve been paying even scant attention to Nurse in his first year as the Raptors’ head coach. This is the guy who had his team run the complicated triangle offence for part of a pre-season game, just to pay tribute to Tex Winter, the father of the offence who had died a couple of days earlier.
That he asked his players to do something strange is one thing (“It’s probably something you see more often in high school — even college you’ll see it — but I don’t remember ever seeing it in the NBA,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said). Getting them to buy in and do it is another.
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“First of all, your players have to have some faith in it,” Nurse said. “I got a sense of, from them, that they were good with it in the timeout.”
Nurse will have to be at his creative best to coax his Raptors into a more consistent Game 3 performance, in a 1-1 series, than they put on in Sunday’s Game 2. He knows one way to slow the Warriors at least a little bit is to score more on them, so they can’t unload three-pointer after three-pointer on you in transition. A more conservative coach might look to call more set plays that are proven, or let Leonard loose in isolation and tell him to make something happen.
Nurse is going to let the Raptors be what he’s had them be all season: creative and free-flowing and far more reactive than scripted.
Kind of like Nurse himself.
“It’s always a game of rhythm a little bit and you have to watch what’s happening,” he said. “We talk a lot about our shot spectrum, the shots we’re trying to get. We have to get a certain amount of paint touches. We have to get the ball side to side. Those are things you just have to keep an eye on.”
And decide to change to whatever comes to mind.
“He’ll ask us this or that, and he’ll say: Are you guys comfortable with doing this, or what do you think about this or that?” Lowry said. “And a lot of the times the situations that he puts us in are to be successful.
“He’s done a good job of this year letting Pascal (Siakam) play kind of point forward … and putting (in) different types of offences and schemes and defensive schemes. He’s been really good. We’re in the Finals for a reason, and he’s helped us get here.”
Doug Smith is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter:
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