Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors have come across their first banana peel. Despite what the Golden State Warriors may have you believe over the past few seasons, the path to an NBA championship is never easy. It is also one that — save for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — the organization is trying not to be led off course as it has in the past.
The path to gaining the requisite knowledge is fraught with consequence, sometimes so stark it costs a man who knew what it was to win a championship — albeit as an assistant — his job. Dwane Casey understands that its the nature of the business, but also made clear he doesn’t necessarily comprehend why.
“Getting to the playoffs against Brooklyn, Game 7, you play those games over and over but just the struggle it had come from. I was talking to Jose [Calderon] about the teams we had early, Ben Uzoh getting a double-double, um, triple-double, sorry Ben. From back in those days to go from there to where we ended up was great. Nothing but great memories, great times and a lot of good friends. A lot of good friends…
“I understand what happened, how it happened. I don’t know why it happened. I understand it.”
When his Detroit Pistons came away with an unlikely victory on a frigid Wednesday night (this would also fit the description for the Raptors’ outside shooting on the night), it was easy to understand why he and his team celebrated as they did. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and it’s hard to make them much colder than a buzzer-beater in your old team’s building.
This, though, is ultimately a regular season win. One with potential seeding implications on both sides but no playoff exits in the immediacy. That’s what the Raptors are trying to avoid.
When Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets, announced his intent to engage in an weapons race with the Golden State Warriors, he did so by introducing Chris Paul as the team’s latest member. High-end talent at the NBA level matters, and the Rockets had enough of diminishing James Harden’s value by going to the well until it was empty.
Having two future Hall-of-Famers would allow them to paint the big picture of potentially the highest ceiling possible, but they also had to get the right guys to round out the edges. Signing P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute complemented what Trevor Ariza brought to the table, and gave them the belief that they were ready to prepare for the Warriors. Not the entire league on a night-to-night basis, but specifically the champs. Regardless of who they played, they envisioned the Warriors jersey on the front and beat it into their habits to switch at will on the defensive end, attack the paint and drown teams with a boatload of threes.
Against teams that weren’t necessarily best suited for their game plans, it was expected that the talent would work hard enough to win anyway. It resulted in the league’s best record and home court throughout the playoffs.
When the Warriors finally came in the Conference Finals, they were ready. They executed what they had practiced for an entire season and put themselves within one half of advancing to the NBA Finals, twice. But for Paul’s hamstring injury or missing 27 straight three-pointers in Game 7, who knows?
That’s what Toronto is striving for, perfection in the back nine. They’ve done the front nine yards plenty of times and fallen apart when it matters most every time before.
For Casey seven years ago, his job was just getting them to the country club. The Raptors, make no mistake, were in no man’s land. Rudderless, directionless and barren in the win column. He took a raw DeMar DeRozan, a prickly Kyle Lowry and a team of dedicated professionals and taught them to work together. Play to the final whistle just as he would coach before, during, and well after it. When the talent didn’t work hard enough, the hard work would win. He compiled each of his 320 wins with the franchise that way, and respect and integrity grew.
But so did pressure and expectations. And when they came across talent that was willing to outwork them as well, they’d get bundled out of the playoffs.
It stared Masai Ujiri in the face, while the Barney memes and LeBronto jokes did the taunting. Premier talent and a refreshed approach was the only answer for the final stages for him, and so he made the biggest moves of his career and fired Casey and traded DeRozan.
In Leonard, he found someone who had proven he could paint the majority of the Larry O’Brien trophy and in Danny Green he had someone who could paint around the edges.
“He [Kawhi] looks the same player, you added an all-pro type of player to your team and a lot of versatility defensively, offensively,” Casey said before the Raptors played his Detroit Pistons. “And not only that, you add Danny Green who’s a bonafide defender, three-point shooter, tough guy. You’ve added two very high quality guys from a championship team that know how to win, knows what it’s all about, a heck of a pick up for the organization.”
The move has pushed the Raptors into the fast lane with no time to look back. Leonard’s free agency is coming, so is Green’s. Lowry will be 33 come playoff time.
Flexibility and versatility are what Nick Nurse has preached, it is the foundation of eclipsing the Warriors. By virtue of the NBA being a copycat league and other teams following that model, it also makes them well suited to compete with the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets. The Milwaukee Bucks have pivoted that way courtesy of Mike Budenholzer but also have an athleticism and length to them that’s … freaky.
Think back to what has given the Warriors problems in the past, though. While LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were the chief architects in Cleveland’s infamous 3-1 comeback, Tristan Thompson was instrumental, bullying the Warriors inside with rebound after rebound while crucially being able to switch out to the perimeter. People point to the game where the San Antonio Spurs were bulldozing the Warriors on their home floor till the Zaza Pachula closeout and think of Kawhi Leonard. But LaMarcus Aldridge was having his way with them, too, just as he did in closing out the Rockets in the series prior.
The Warriors didn’t just add DeMarcus Cousins as a troll job. In him, they saw someone who can plug a hole, possibly even hurt teams that try to do what they do better. When the time calls, they will have the ability to go big and counter every counter.
Basketball is but a game of trade-offs, and to become a team that can switch and space with pace and regularity and do it to the highest degree, the sacrifice that must be made is size. The Raptors are 27th in defensive rebound rate after finishing 21st a season ago with two bigs in the starting lineup. They are getting bullied by opponents on the glass on several nights, and while that wasn’t the case against the Pistons, Blake Griffin had his way in missing just nine of the 22 shots he took while Andre Drummond collected six of the team’s nine offensive rebounds.
It will probably take more than 15 games to get his team where he wants it to be on the glass. After playing with two bigs in the starting lineup for all of last season and Leonard and Green also coming over from a system that was devout to two bigs, that aspect is something that may just need more time in understanding how to gang rebound better.
Does a lack of size necessitate a lack of rebounding? Not necessarily.
While the Warriors finished 29th and 27th in 2017-18 and 2016-17, respectively, the Rockets improved from 21st in defensive rebound rate in 2016-17 to fourth in 2017-18. They’ve dropped back down to 19th so far this season but are a respectable 12th since Nov. 1, which just so happens to coincide with the return of defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik.
“We still want to keep our space on offence, which means we want to play a little smaller, but we still have to take care of the glass,” Nurse said before taking on the Pistons. “So, hopefully it will balance out and they will have a hard time staying with us on the perimeter or on the drives if we are having a hard time staying with their bigs inside.”
For the better part of three quarters, it worked just fine. In fact, better than fine. Despite the absences of Norman Powell, C.J. Miles and Serge Ibaka, the team seemed to be in control of the situation, up 19, despite Griffin overpowering anyone that stepped in his path with relative ease. Green’s departure due to some lower back tightness sparked a turnaround for the Pistons, and perhaps that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for one night.
If the Raptors are going to play the pace and space way, taking advantage of it with shot making is a necessity. Take away that spacing, though, and scoring in the half court becomes all the more difficult. This team does not intend on playing postseason games without Ibaka and three wing players available to them. If Nurse believes this is the way to play the best teams in the league, he must maintain this focus. If he deems he needs the flexibility of two bigs as well, he must be willing to go that way as well.
“I don’t think it’s a question of what would it take me,” Nurse said when asked about a time and a place for two bigs in the lineup. “I’ve been close a couple of times of doing it. Again, it’s more probably me not trying to stay away from the big lineup as it is keep the guys like Pascal and OG and Kawhi playing those 4 minutes. That’s really more of my objective.”
There are plenty of ways to skin a cat, but Nurse is entirely within his rights to do it the way he believes is best. If he feels it’s employing a style that best prepares them for the upper echelon of the NBA, so be it. More often than not, that style married with the talent available to him will be good enough even against teams with lower ceilings but thrive in certain matchup situations. Those teams will need things to go their way, like the bodies that weren’t available for the Raptors that accentuated a 4-for-20 shooting night from beyond the arc.
Two straight losses for the first time this season, after almost a month of basketball, is a slip that leaves you plenty of time to learn, plenty of time to heal, plenty of time to remember that for the most part, it’s working very well.
Sharpening the tools, that comes over the course of 82 games with getting to know new teammates better, new coaches better, new schemes better. Knowing what works and what doesn’t? That doesn’t come without consequence.