Raptors’ coaching staff taking it to another level

Raptors’ coaching staff taking it to another level

Trailing by 11 with the game dwindling down, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was desperate. The youngest of nine siblings, an unknown interloper who played at the University of Northern Iowa, bouncing around the British Basketball League and the then-D-League before landing in Toronto as an assistant, Nurse was never supposed to be here: under the bright lights of the NBA Finals as a rookie coach, on the precipice of losing one of the biggest games of his career. 

He certainly coached like he was playing with house money, whipping out a whiteboard and drawing up a scheme most playbooks abandon after junior varsity: the box-and-one, where one defender — Fred VanVleet, in this instance — hounds the scorer, while the other four defenders form a box around the paint that gravitates toward the threat. The Raptors’ mercurial leader and resident smartypants, Kyle Lowry, immediately co-signed, and they were off to the races.

Despite the fact that the Raptors lost the game, the ploy worked. They almost erased the deficit, and they bumped into a strategy that paid dividends throughout the rest of the series. 

walk-on at the University of South Dakota, where Nurse was an assistant. Thirteen years later, he hassled Nurse until he let Bjorkgren join the then-Iowa Energy of the D-League as a volunteer assistant. Bjorkgren eventually made the payroll, and they won a title together, cementing a bond that’s turned Bjorkgren into the in-game Nurse whisperer. He is infectiously positive, always seeing the pathway to a comeback, and he has enough leeway to get on his boss. “When I’m constantly saying we’re in trouble, we ain’t got it, we’re not moving, what’s wrong with us? Blah, blah, blah,” Nurse said. “I get those out and he’s got me back on track. He might say, ‘Do something then! Change defenses or something!’”’ data-reactid=”32″>Once upon a time, Nate Bjorkgren was a walk-on at the University of South Dakota, where Nurse was an assistant. Thirteen years later, he hassled Nurse until he let Bjorkgren join the then-Iowa Energy of the D-League as a volunteer assistant. Bjorkgren eventually made the payroll, and they won a title together, cementing a bond that’s turned Bjorkgren into the in-game Nurse whisperer. He is infectiously positive, always seeing the pathway to a comeback, and he has enough leeway to get on his boss. “When I’m constantly saying we’re in trouble, we ain’t got it, we’re not moving, what’s wrong with us? Blah, blah, blah,” Nurse said. “I get those out and he’s got me back on track. He might say, ‘Do something then! Change defenses or something!’”

turned lifer who has seen it all as a coach and a player, making hay on defense and wrangling mercurial players.” data-reactid=”33″>From there, Nurse might tinker with one of assistant coach Adrian Griffin’s defensive sets. “I think the one thing that’s special about Coach Nurse, from working with him, is that he always enhances what you bring to him,” Griffin said during the NBA Finals. “We all have thoughts and they’re always good, [but] he seems to make them great.” He is the only former NBA player among the core assistants, the survivor turned lifer who has seen it all as a coach and a player, making hay on defense and wrangling mercurial players.

Or maybe Nurse’ll opt to call a timeout and run an inbounds play from Sergio Scariolo’s playbook. The head coach of Spain’s national team, a two-time Olympic medal winner, will be absent on Sunday. He’s coaching the Spanish national team through European qualifiers, a unique setup for an NBA team. Basketball, like fashion, evolves abroad before Americans notice. When Scariolo ventures abroad, instead of postcards, he brings with him fresh sets.

All four view the game through different lenses. Inside the Scotiabank Arena, their styles converge and lead to new solutions. 

“I think that it’s learning from mistakes a little bit,” said VanVleet, when asked what allows the Raptors to function despite competing opinions. “That was something that probably wasn’t the greatest when [former head coach Dwane] Casey was here. I think there were more disagreements than there needed to be. I think that turning over, starting over fresh, I think that’s something that I’ve seen, we’ve been trying to do different. That’s coming from the top down, just trying to figure out better ways to get through those disagreements and just go with a plan and see what works.” He also pointed out that the team Nurse inherited was better. Casey, after all, never got to coach Leonard, and he was dealing with younger iterations of the current roster. 

Regardless of the reason, under Nurse the Raptors’ dialogue has shifted. “Instead of worrying about whose idea it is or where it comes from,” VanVleet said, “let’s just try to put a plan together that works and go out there and be on the same page.”

Living proof that good ideas can come from anywhere, Nurse encourages an “open forum” by having the team stand in a circle instead of a huddle at the end of practices.

“I was his assistant in the D-League,” Bjorkgren said. “He gave me a ton of responsibility during that time, and I always wanted to be a head coach. I was a D-League head coach for four years [after]. It’s the same now. He gives assistants so much room to grow, to experience different things through practice and games, and we love him for it. He’s a great coach to be under as an assistant because he wants all of his coaches to be head coaches.”



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