Blaming Nurse for thinking outside the box is a bit rich


Hate the result, but don’t waste time second guessing the process.

Nick Nurse is the coach he is and the Raptors are the team they are at least in part because of Nurse’s willingness to try anything.

And Thursday night, Nurse was willing to try something.

With James Harden in town and coming off a 50-point night and a 60-point night in his past two games, Nurse rolled the dice with a defensive scheme Harden hasn’t seen to date. The Raptors have had variations of doubling superstars at times and getting the ball out of their hands this season with plenty of success but this was different.

This was Harden being doubled almost as soon as he crossed the logo.

And rather than take it off and switch things up intermittently, Nurse stuck with it for basically the full 48 minutes.

Harden attempted just 11 field goals and made seven of them. He got to the line for just six free throw attempts. Both the field goal attempts and free throws are season lows.

His 23 points on the night are his second worst output of the season. In the season opening loss to Milwaukee he had just 19.

All things considered the strategy worked. James Harden did not beat the Raptors.

But the Raptors still lost and because of that Twitter and social media, as only those vehicles are capable of, were killing Nurse for trying something like this.

Never mind that Ben McLemore who was a combined 3-for-14 in two exhibition games against Toronto from three earlier this year in Japan suddenly looked like Klay Thompson hitting a career best 8-of-17 from distance. That’s a career 35% three-point shooter getting red-hot. The Raptors were willing to accept that risk.

The Raptors did not win and that meant the strategy was a dumb one in some minds.

Such short-minded thinking, really.

Attempts like these are the way teams get better. Nurse knows it and his players know it too.

It’s what the team has come to expect of their head coach and one of the big reasons he has the respect of the room. He’s not afraid.

Recall last June when Nurse broke out the box-and-one defence against a Warriors team that had Steph Curry going and healthy and little else.

The response was border-line ridicule. Curry called it “Janky.” Others sneered that this was something they hadn’t used since grade school.

Nurse’s response?

He went back to it again and again. Eventual world champion Spain with Nurse’s assistant Sergio Scariolo at the helm used it in their title run.

Ridicule or scorn doesn’t affect Nurse. He’s willing to take the hit to find something that works and confident enough not to care if it doesn’t.

It’s something his players love about him.

“It shows the type of person he is, his character, that he’s not scared to try some things and I think it’s fun to be around someone like that who is always experimenting and doing what might be out of the norm,” Pascal Siakam said after the game.

It’s also exactly what Nurse promised when he was first named head coach two summers ago. How do you blame a man for doing exactly what he said he was going to do?

The fact that this particular attempt didn’t result in a win doesn’t mean you won’t see it again. The Raptors visit Houston Sunday, April 5 and expect Nurse to try something similar with perhaps a tweak or two.

“I’d have to look at the film and see what we could do a little better,” Nurse said of running it back again. “If the result turned out the other way around, we’d probably say it was a great experiment. We’ve got to look at it a little more closely to see. I’d never run that scheme before, at all. There’s probably a lot of polish we could put on it to make it better. But it was interesting, interesting.”

Nurse certainly wasn’t feeling any regret about this particular experiment.

“I think it was pretty good,” he said. “It wasn’t great, but it was pretty good. We just weren’t good enough in some of the other areas. I talked about that in pre-game. Against this team, 50 3’s are going to go up. What did they shot, 55? There are 33 long rebounds there. … We’ve got to race those down a little bit.”

The scheme meant a lot of running around for both Fred VanVleet who became the second trapper as soon as Harden got to the logo on the floor joinng either OG Anunoby or Norm Powell and leaving his own man and Siakam. But Harden was a willing passer all night and that meant scrambling back to his man.

Siakam was on the move defensively all night as well leaving his man to cover the middle when VanVleet ran out to double on Harden and then recovering as they got the ball out of Harden’s hands.

Siakam sounded a little surprised they kept it up the whole game and suggested next time around it might be better utilized intermittently. On for a play or a series of plays and then take off. Siakam thought the Rockets got into a rhythm with it being on constantly and that helped them.

But overall he said running that kind of scheme is just part of being a member of the Raptors.

“We gotta trust the coach and the schemes,” Siakam said. “It’s one of the things we do on this team. We believe in what we believe, we are a team and some of the things he comes up with he asks for our opinions too so it’s not just him. It all works out.”

No one was complaining when Nurse and his staff were coming up with unorthodox lineups to get through the 11 games they were without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka so to start whining about it now when a good idea worked to a point but didn’t quite get the intended result is hypocritical.