A victory on top of the debut of a new superstar and head coach was the icing on the cake for the Toronto Raptors who opened one of the most highly anticipated seasons for the city in years on Wednesday night.
The focus on versatility paid off for the Raptors new coach Nick Nurse as the team beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 116-104 in their home opener at Scotiabank Arena.
Nurse told reporters prior to the game that he thought he would have had a tougher time sleeping the night before his debut as the Raptors coach.
But he said he barely got through running one play before he fell asleep. He then woke up at 5:30 a.m., did his morning workout and headed to the shootaround.
The only issue the coach seemed to have was that he didn’t have time to get to his second workout of the day. However, he did manage to get himself a pregame nap.
“I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the journey over the last couple of months,” Nurse said. “I don’t want to make it sound like it’s not a big deal to me.”
“I said it when I got hired. I said for five years, I had a 1,000 people telling me I was going to be a head coach in the NBA and when I got the job, those same 1,000 people were shocked and those same 1,000 people are really nervous tonight.”
The Raptors succeeded in their shot at redemption, defeating the LeBron James-less — who took his talents to the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason — Cavaliers, who swept Toronto out of the playoffs the past two seasons.
Nurse, who spent five years as a Raptors assistant before taking over for the fired Dwane Casey as head coach in June, is aware of the shift in dynamic that can come when making the transition from assistant to head coach.
“They’re different,” he said. “Take my relationship with Jonas (Valanciunas) for example, I spent a a lot of time with him as an assistant … I still spend a lot of time with him because of the relationship we have, but again, it’s just really a time different thing that you’re under.”
For Nurse, communication is key — something he knows is important to the players as well.
“That’s something that I hope to bring. They know me — most of them — I’m still getting to know some of them and they’re still getting to know me as a head coach,” he said.
The 51-year-old spoke of flexibility when it came to game play. Fans were told not to expect the same consistent starters throughout the season as Nurse said he was looking to get the team more versatile.
And Toronto did look versatile, with the appearances of several different lineups in the first half alone. They opened the game with OG Anunoby, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. Jonas Valanciunas found himself facing small-ball lineups on multiple occasions as Cleveland quickly made changes when the big man subbed in. But Nurse said Valanciunas handled himself well.
“There’s certain matchups that work and certain ones that don’t – some of those there’s historical knowledge that we want to use,” Nurse said. “They’re certain combinations that work and certain ones that don’t. I want to test a bunch of them, I want to make us flexible.
“I just think you have to prepare for a guy being out here, a guy being out there.”
Nurse was asked prior to the game whether this was a better Raptors team than in years past – especially since team president Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger on the blockbuster trade that brought all-star Kawhi Leonard in from San Antonio in exchange for fan favourite and all-star himself DeMar DeRozan in the offseason.
“You can’t say that until we start playing but there’s certainly the potential there,” Nurse said, adding players were still getting to know each other and chemistry still needed to be “worked out.”
There were some obvious kinks throughout the game, most noticeably in the first and fourth quarters; Pascal Siakam, who started the game, had to be pulled early due to two quick personal fouls in the first quarter. In the fourth, after leading by as much as 20 points in the third, Toronto allowed the Cavaliers to claw their way back to within eight points due to foul trouble and a lack of communication.
“I think we saw some spurts of some pretty good play but it wasn’t the prettiest painting,” Nurse said postgame. “There was a lot of whistles and lot of stoppages. We sent them to the line a little too much, gave them too many offensive rebounds.”
“We’ve got some room for improvement, that’s for sure.”
There were some highlights, as well. The Raptors set a franchise record on opening night with 14 three-point field goals and had five players finish in double-digit scoring.
Valanciunas who had six points and 13 rebounds, impressed the most on his passing plays, which included a no-look, behind-the-back-bounce pass to Anunoby for a dunk in the second quarter.
Leonard, who hasn’t played since Jan. 13 and played all of nine games last season due to a quadriceps injury, looked a bit rusty in the opening minutes missing his first three shots. He shook it off as the game progressed and demonstrated why he was a two-time defensive player of the year. He finished with 24 points and 13 rebounds.
“I thought Kawhi created a lot of opportunities for himself,” Nurse said.“You see that the ability is there for him to get shots and I think some of the nights, those are going to be some big numbers.”
Lowry looked like a man on a mission, hitting a three-pointer in the opening minutes and finishing with 27 points and eight assists on the night.
Kevin Love led the Cavs with 21 points, while Cedi Osman added 17. Canadian Tristan Thompson grabbed a team-high 13 rebounds.
Prior to joining the Raptors, Nurse spent six years as a head coach in the NBA G League for the Iowa Energy from 2007-2011 and Rio Grande Valley Vipers from 2011-2013, leading both to a championship. He also served as an assistant coach for Britain at the 2012 Olympics.
“Cool” is what Nurse called his first win as an NBA head coach.
“It was a little bit nerve wracking towards the end,” he said. “It was really cool to get it done and now we can quit talking about that and get ready to start coaching.”
The Raptors face a bigger test Friday night when they take on the Boston Celtics at home. Tip-off is set for 8:00 p.m.