‘We play hard.’ Raptors coach Nick Nurse shrugs off constant change, keeps message the same


Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse questions an official’s call during the second half against the Orlando Magicon Friday in Tampa, Fla.


Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse questions an official’s call during the second half against the Orlando Magicon Friday in Tampa, Fla.

If there is one thing that’s been apparent about Nick Nurse over his nearly three years at the helm of the Raptors it’s that he enjoys the improvisational aspects of being a basketball coach.

He relishes developing game plans and ways to attack and defend opponents, he revels in finding out which matchups his team can exploit every night.

It’s a fun part of the job and it doesn’t really matter all that much whether he’s got a handful of NBA all-stars at his disposal or a disparate gaggle of backups playing out of position and in unfamiliar groups.

He does what he does, regardless, and it’s not a bad way to exist.

“I want our guys to play the right way,” Nurse was saying on the weekend. “I don’t know who’s in or who’s out or who is coming back when or whatever . . . there are some standards we would like to play to and it’s as simple as that.

“It’s kind of the way we should probably live anyway.”

This most trying of Raptors seasons — relocation, a horrid start, COVID-19 issues and a roster imbalance that swung from too guard- and wing-oriented early — has been a difficult one for Nurse to navigate.

He’s seen players given opportunity not accept the challenge, he’s seen players come and go from the lineup almost daily since the all-star break in February, he’s faced challenges entirely new from any he had to in either of his first two seasons.

There’s been no time to practise but that’s OK in some ways since some weeks there haven’t been enough available bodies to conduct any kind of meaningful workout.

The cumulative effect got to him at times, as it would any normal human.

“I’ve had my frustrations this year, all this and that, but I’m kind of over that,” he said on the weekend. “Look at this week: We had a doubleheader Saturday-Sunday, which means I can’t practise Monday.

“We had a doubleheader (back-to-back games Tuesday and Wednesday), which means I can’t practise Thursday. We play Friday. Come on, man. You know what I mean?”

Nurse does now, however, have some time and some bodies. The schedule has been brutal — nine games in 13 nights ending with Sunday’s win over Oklahoma City — but it eases a bit now. The Raptors only play against Brooklyn on Wednesday, before another two days without games.

And the roster seems settled, new big men Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie are getting worked in; there seems to be some continuity that’s been missing all season.

Not surprisingly, even with a lineup that changes almost nightly in games, the Raptors have looked far better over the last two weeks.

They’ve won three games in a row and six of their last 10 and that may not be a championship-calibre clip, in this season it’s not too shabby at all.

A lot of it is because Nurse’s message never changes and his ability to coax big games out of unlikely sources is genuinely good. He has a style that he wants to play, finds matchups each night that seem to benefit the Raptors and all of a sudden Gary Trent’s getting 40 points in a game, Paul Watson and Yuta Watanabe are having career nights and six guys are in double figures in another game.

They put in a plan, tweak it to suit the needs of any particular night and away they go.

“We go out there and we play hard, and we play defence,” the coach said. “We share the ball and we execute to get the shots that we want.

“Sometimes a lot of them go in, sometimes they don’t but as long as you continue to work that way, let the chips fall where they may. It would probably be a good attitude to have.”

It’s likely that the season is too far off the rails and that a 1-13 March is simply too big a hole to climb out of. Nurse understands that, he knows reality when it stares him in the face. But he also knows that it’s cheating himself, his players or the game to change what he’s done all along.

It’s nice that kids like Malachi Flynn and Watson and Watanabe and Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie get developmental time but it goes far, far beyond dribble, shooting, passing and defending.

“What I thought development was, was teaching guys how to win,” he said. “You’ve heard me say pre- and post-game here that I’m coaching these guys to play the right way, teaching them what winning basketball means and is, and trying to get them to perform to that level.

“Now they get valuable developmental minutes on the court.”

Doug Smith is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @smithraps