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Raptors’ search for best self starts with Nick Nurse being himself

Nurse is comfortable being himself.

Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

It started off innocently enough, jokingly, even.

But then Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse took on a more serious tone, clarifying that he was trying to make a point, that his silent superstar was being, you know, a little too silent.

“I just think he’s got to get a little more engaged, right? Just a little bit more engaged,” Nurse said at shootaround before his ball club took on the Brooklyn Nets. “And look for some motivation, right? To go out there and, I dunno, do his thing. I always say go out there and destroy some people or whatever it is. You know? You’ve got to get motivated.”

Kawhi Leonard was in a lull, scoring under 20 in three out of four games and shooting 34.5 percent from the field over contests against the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks. Prior to that, he had hit the 20-point mark 22 straight times, 13 of which he dropped at least 30.

Looking ahead to the all-star break perhaps? Bored of “destroying people?”

“A little bit, and I’m kind of being serious about it. He needs to find a little bit of fire once in a while to go out there and say, ‘You know what? I’m getting 35 or 40 tonight,’ you know?”

Leonard claims he didn’t hear the comments until he was told post-game, and based on the first quarter alone, you would have to believe it. He was 1-for-6 in the opening stanza, turned the ball over three times and was a minus-7 in 11 minutes. The will to dominate wasn’t there just as it wasn’t the previous few games and Brooklyn’s active hands and sense of anticipation were making a usually other-worldly player look as though he’s been sipping H20 and breaking bread just like the rest of us.

These are the dog days of the season, though, and it is only human to take a deep breath and allow the light at the end of the unofficial first half of the season known as the All-Star break to bait you into thinking you can take your foot off the gas. It’s a pedal that Leonard has put to the metal for virtually every game he’s played this season, averaging 27 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.9 steals — numbers that have him just outside the MVP conversation because of the games he’s missed, 15 to this point.

The time for going through the motions and seeing what’s what, though, are virtually over. Nurse knows it. The trade deadline along with anticipated signings will create the greatest roster in franchise history and it’s on him to get the most out of it; ensure the sacrifices made to create it don’t go to waste.

Toronto has catered to Leonard’s needs and Nurse has allowed him to showcase his skills to a degree that was never going to be the case in egalitarian San Antonio. All usage isn’t equal, and while Leonard’s consumption of 30.4 percent of San Antonio’s possessions while he was on the court during his 2016-17 MVP-second-runner-up season is a tick above his 29.3 percent rate in Toronto, just over two-thirds (67.6 percent) of his field goals to this point have been of the unassisted variety, compared to just over half (52.4 percent) with the Spurs in ’16-17.

The clichés of expecting much from whom much is given and great power being attached with great responsibility come to mind, and that is certainly the case as we head down the stretch. Toronto has to feel comfortable enough in its own skin to make that clear, something President Masai Ujiri made clear right from Leonard and Danny Green’s introductory press conference.

“There’s not going to be any over-sell, Kawhi is a superstar, Danny (Green) is a championship player and we have to be us,” Ujiri said. “… Give them all the resources, the platform to win here, and hopefully that does show these guys what kind of organization and shows Kawhi what kind of organization this is.”

Nurse has openly talked about Lowry needing to look at the basket more, he’s challenged Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas to put egos aside for the betterment of the team and has even left Marc Gasol in a bench role while he acclimates to the team and learns the different schemes and plays of his new team. The biggest piece is Leonard, though, and if showing that he is no exception is being true to Nurse’s true self, that’s what he must do. He can’t be needy, but he certainly can’t walk on egg shells either. It’s what, ironically, Gregg Popovich has done ever so well in his time in San Antonio, and the success he’s had in doing so is an example for anyone to learn from.

Leonard went 9-for-14 over his final 23 minutes against Brooklyn for 24 points, added five assists and didn’t turn the ball over once. Oh, he hit the game winner, too, an assisted field goal courtesy of Lowry. It had nothing to do with what Nurse said, but the fact that he appreciated Nurse’s honesty after the game shows that the Raptors’ mindset of being true to themselves — and in Nurse’s case, always willing to confront the elephant in the room — needs to be at the forefront of everything Toronto does from here.

“When a coach is like that, you want that motivation,” Leonard told the media after the game. “They can see it. They’re looking in between the lines of the game. Even if you’re going out there and having 20 points and you win, you want a coach that motivates you and tells you what you’re still doing that’s negative on the floor and costing your team. I appreciate him putting that in the air.”

No elephants, not even for Kawhi.

Toronto has embarked upon a season in which the pieces fundamental to the foundation of everything they built coming into this season have become castaways. For this franchise to show how far its truly come, now is the time to show those core beliefs can withstand whoever comes or goes.

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