Nick Nurse’s in-game adjustments help lead Toronto Raptors to NBA Championship
From Kawhi Leonard’s historic series-clinching Game 7 buzzer-beater against the Philadelphia 76ers to Danny Green’s overtime-winning three-pointer in Game 3 against the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA Finals championship run by the Toronto Raptors has been entertaining to say the least.
But it’s the decisions made by rookie head coach Nick Nurse that have stirred much of the conversation.
“He’s been great, he’s been adaptable, he’s been adjustable,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet told reporters Sunday. “We have to utilize all of our weapons and Nurse has been great.
“You need a great head coach. You need a great voice to lead the weapons you have.”
The Raptors made history Thursday, beating the defending champs Golden State Warriors 114-110 to take Game 6 and the NBA Finals.
Almost a year to the day, Nurse was given the reigns to the Raptors when President Masai Ujiri fired then-head coach Dwane Casey — a day after being named Coach of the Year — after Toronto was swept out of the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Cleveland Cavaliers — the third year in a row they were eliminated by LeBron James.
WATCH: ‘In the playoffs, you have to make adjustments even when you’re winning,’ says Nurse
The 51-year-old Nurse, who had been an assistant coach under Casey since 2013 and got his first coaching job at 23, was handed the keys to an already-established team and expectations were high for them to be a genuine contender.
Fast forward to Monday and the Raptors were up 3-1 against the Warriors, who had won the past four out of five championships, after already dismissing the Orlando Magic in five, the 76ers in seven and the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks in six.
The following are just some of the adjustments made by Nurse that helped the Raptors capture their franchise-first NBA Championship in his first year at the helm.
Box and One ‘Janky’ defence
The talk of the town by both analysts and fans alike was when Nurse employed the box-and-one defence in Game 2 of the Finals. Steph Curry called the usual high school-type defence ‘janky’ and Nurse said post-game he knew he’d be made fun of because of it. The play itself, however, — a zone defence with one guy free to play man on Curry — worked and the Raptors were able to hold the Warriors to 1 from 7 from the field and almost stole the win.
The box-and-one made another brief appearance again in Game 4 Friday when the Raptors won 105-92 to take a 3-1 series lead.
Not giving up on players
With notable players like Marc Gasol and Danny Green not playing up to expectations at the start of the playoffs, most coaches may have chosen to move away from them in crucial moments, but not Nurse.
He put the ball in Green’s hands with the game on the line in overtime against the Bucks. He had Gasol shutdown DeMarcus Cousins when he returned to the Warriors lineup in Game 3.
Both fans and media were calling for Nurse to stop relying on VanVleet, who through the first 15 games of the postseason was only averaging four points a game (25.6 per cent shooting) and couldn’t find his game. But the coach refused and kept him in the rotation off the bench and in Game 4 against the Bucks, VanVleet finally appeared to breakthrough and finished the night going five for six.
Since then, VanVleet has been solid for the Raptors both on offence and defence, guarding one of the best offensive powerhouses in the game in Curry.
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Rotation adjustments – Fred on Steph
Furthermore to Nurse’s seemingly unwavering belief in his players, he made the decision to swap VanVleet out for Green in the starting second half lineup in Game 3 of the Finals. The Raptors were up by eight coming out of the half and Green had started every one prior. But Nurse made the decision to make the switch and it worked. VanVleet was able to slow Curry down enough for the Raptors to eek out the win.
Another rotation adjustment was in Nurse’s decision to go big and put both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka on the floor together. Though the two made a number of appearances together, the turning point was Game 4 against the Sixers. Through the first three games of the series, Philadelphia outrebounded Toronto by 33. With Siakam dealing with a calf contusion, Nurse turned to his two bigman to fill the hole.
Ibaka finished with 12 points and nine rebounds and Gasol ended with 16 points, five boards and three assists.
Not always perfect
The Raptors were up 3-1 over the Warriors and looking to close out the NBA Finals Monday night. Leonard had finally broken through to score 10 points in the fourth quarter after being effectively shutdown by Andre Iguodala the whole game. Toronto went on a 12-2 run, taking a 103-97 lead with 3:05 to go and pandemonium breaking out at Scotiabank Arena. And that was when Nurse decided to take a timeout and had everyone confused.
The timeout seemed to squash any momentum the Raptors had and led the way for the Warriors to take the game back in their hands. Golden State hit three straight three-pointers after the timeout and ended up winning 106-105, forcing a Game 6 on homecourt.
When asked after the game why he made the decision, Nurse told reporters the team had two timeouts they would have lost once the three-minute mark passed. He said he thought it was best to use them to give the guys a break rather than lose it.
“We had two free ones that you lose under the three-minute mark,” Nurse said.
“We had back-to-back ones there that we would have lost at the three-minute mark, and just felt the guys could use the extra energy push.”
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