Nurse reflects on Leonard setting tone for Raptors’ title season

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The longest defending championship reign in NBA history officially came to an end Sunday night when the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in six games, officially unseating the Toronto Raptors from their place atop the league’s hierarchy after 486 days.

Joining ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on an episode of The Woj Pod to discuss his new book, Rapture: Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, And How to Find a Way to Win — Damn Near Anywhere, Raptors head coach and 2019-20 Coach of the Year Nick Nurse reflected on the title season, and a particular moment in the film room early on that set the tone for the whole thing.

“We were talking about moving the ball, getting a little bit more ball movement,” Nurse recalled. “You know, I think that rolls off everybody’s tongue all the time really easily, both coaches, players, media, fans, whatever. ‘Boy, why don’t they move the ball more, (they) should move the ball.’”

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It was mid-November, and Toronto had just lost three in a row after an impressive 12-1 start. There had already been an increased aura of anxiety projected upon the team following Kawhi Leonard‘s arrival via trade, and among the many questions that plagued the Raptors (was this a legit championship contender? Would Kyle Lowry be upset his best friend, DeMar DeRozan, had been dealt? Would Leonard, a soon-to-be free agent, stay in Toronto?) was the concern that Leonard’s actual fit with the rest of the roster on the floor bogged down the offence and was antithetical to Nurse’s preferred egalitarian style.

“And (that notion) was getting a lot of momentum,” Nurse said, “especially from the second-unit guys and it got, you know, around and the meeting was kind of picking up some momentum very strongly and they were talking about, ‘Yeah, sometimes we just need to pass it for the hell of it. Just to move it, just to circulate it.’

“And Kawhi held up his hand and said, ‘I ain’t passing for the (expletive) hell of it. My job’s to score, and then draw double and triple teams and when I do, then it’s your job to score.’ And it was very well timed and very well said by him and important.”

Well-timed indeed. The Raptors then went on to win their next eight games, post a 58-24 regular-season record, and, of course, ultimately deliver the first championship run in franchise history with a myriad of Leonard-centric moments along the way.

But such grand accomplishments take a built-up trust and consequently potent chemistry to bring to life, and it was in that moment, and certainly others like it, that Leonard helped further cultivate the club’s winning mindset — something made even more notable due to his notoriously quiet and intensely private modus operandi.

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“He hadn’t said much yet, he was still finding his feet and wondering about me as a coach, wondering about his teammates, wondering about some things,” Nurse said. “We were off to a pretty good start, but still. It was kind of the first team meeting, the first little bit of angst because we’d lost a couple in a row and all that kind of stuff and he spoke up and everybody else in the whole film room looked up like, ‘We haven’t heard that voice too much.’

“You could’ve heard a pin drop while he was speaking and then he delivered a haymaker line there, so that was again followed by a lot of silence (because everyone knew) he’s exactly right and there’s really nothing much more to say. End of meeting.”