Five years on the Raptors sidelines betray Nick Nurse’s rookie head coach status. The slack-jawed friendly stranger was always a sharp contrast to his predecessor, and if anyone thought the grind of the long season and the pressures of being the top man would wither away his boyish enthusiasm and turn him into a task master, they were wrong. Nurse remains as cordial, calm, and composed as he was on day one. His willingness to inspect moments of failure in broad daylight have been a staple of his press conferences, and his tendency to expound on even open-ended questions is a rarity. Unless losing 5 of 8 games in December counts as adversity, Nurse has yet to face it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that his roster is more equipped to handle the inevitable Game 1 loss than previous iterations.
No previous head coach has faced higher expectations. Not Lenny Wilkens with Vince Carter, Sam Mitchell with Chris Bosh, or Dwane Casey with DeMar DeRozan. Whereas most head coaches get a year of reprieve, Nurse has come into a pressure cooker of a situation where a Finals appearance is considered the floor and done remarkably well. Players notch up their game in the spring but what does a coach do differently come crunch time? Shortening rotations and playing the best players more minutes is an obvious answer, but will Nurse manage the game differently come playoff time?
One hopes he doesn’t tinker too much while at the same time being cognizant of not repeating Casey’s fatal flaw of only managing between games rather than during them. The advantage Nurse might have is that this roster doesn’t need to be reminded to play defense, as there are exemplars on the court that manifest the defensive focus required. This unit can fall back on their defense when times turn tough, and that wasn’t always the case last season. The Raptors fifth ranked defense is so despite load management, injuries to Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet, and a general dip in attention during the tail end of the season. There’s enough intelligence and fluidity on the defensive side that the team can adapt organically to pressure situations without too many interventions from the sidelines. Dwane Casey was rightfully lauded for bringing the tough-nosed culture to Toronto, and this unit has cultivated that culture to where it’s something the team can self-organize around. That is key because isn’t culture all you got once adversity hits?
Back to Nurse, leadership often requires having considerable empathy to understand the concerns of team members. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, a strong leader needs to demonstrate flexibility and tune their strategy to suit the occasion. Inflexibility and stubbornness gets in the way of team goals, and this is where I believe Nurse has Casey beat.
Offensively, one of the main area where Nurse could focus on is how to get teams to double Kawhi Leonard. Teams are often content on deploying single-coverage against Leonard and letting him get his, but that works counter to the Raptors grand schemes. This is a team that is most effective when people are slashing and forcing defenses to scramble, allowing room for those deflating Danny Green threes. A strategy to slow the Raptors offense down could be to let Leonard get his which is when there is a tendency for the rest of the unit to ball-watch. That is a risk that must not turn into an issue or else we’ll be using Kawhi Leonard much like DeMar DeRozan.
Playoff games are won possession-by-possession and teams have to nickel and dime when maximizing the value of each possession. A related area to watch is who Danny Green guards. Green is a superb defender that generally switches onto smaller guys, but has shown he can guard bigger players in stretches. If the Raptors are able to get away with two or three such defensive possessions, it creates an advantage on the offensive side which the ever-mobile Green can take advantage of. The same can be said of bigger lineups. For example, one unorthodox lineup which has been used a couple times and yielded some ridiculous net ratings is VanVleet, Lowry, Green, Gasol and Ibaka. The suitability of such a lineup may be infrequent but has the potential to overrun the opposition.
The general post-season formula is that the bench has to remain consistent while the starters elevate their games. There certainly is room for elevation amongst the starters, if only because they’ve been load managed and finally fully healthy. The bench is another story. The Raptors should aim to win the bench unit stints 6-4 than 16-6. If the bench gets into an up-and-down game against other units, it is playing into the hands of the opponent. The Raptors weakness is their bench and teams will attack it. The response has to be a slowdown in pace and a methodical approach to the possession which bides time rather than speed. They must channel their inner Kevin O’Neill.
The Nets, Pistons, Magic or Heat remain potential playoff opponents, and I want the Pistons. They’ll be overconfident and the Raptors will be keen to right the wrongs. Throw in the Casey-Nurse backdrop and you have a firecracker of a playoff series, which will be far more entertaining than any of the other three teams (unless you’re into Terrence Ross). Blake Griffin is a problem because he’s confident that he can get a decent shot off against any Raptors big, especially when Pascal Siakam is checking him. The Raptors tend to collapse and scramble when dealing with him which feeds into Detroit’s intentions. We have an answer for Andre Drummond in Marc Gasol, and off the bench you can’t be serious about Ish Smith. The 0-3 regular season record doesn’t bother me because I can point to several instances such as the Nets and Wizards where the Raptors won the regular season series comfortably only to get slaughtered in the playoffs.
One of the questions that gets asked is if a team benefits from an easy first round series so they’re fresher for the harder test, or if a hard-fought first rounder sets you up to tackle the better team. I’m of the latter view because intensity is a ramp, and the first round series should test you enough where you get to the second round full steam. Of course, history is littered with examples to the contrary as well, take last season’s tough Wizards matchup which arguably took a lot out of us when facing the Cavaliers. Then again going to seven against Miami and Indiana helped us take Cleveland to six a few years back. Maybe it’s just a crapshoot.