Nick Nurse in the spotlight heading into the all-star break
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 13, 2020
If Nurse’s trademark is his confident, easy-going chill, Bjorkgren’s trademark is a seemingly natural tendency to see the bright side of things; a rock-solid belief that the best is around the corner.
He does it with an earnestness that is rare in an NBA world where cool rules, and it’s welcome.
“I think Nate’s fun,” says Siakam. “I hear him all the time in my ear talking about something. Every morning he’ll say hi to you and give you a dab. He’s present and I think his energy is felt and needed on this team. He’s a great guy to have, a great coach and somebody who is a likeable person and so serious about his job … Nate’s fun.”
Bjorkgren doesn’t discriminate. Walk around the halls at Scotiabank Arena and it’s common to see him dabbing up security staff, maintenance staff and even reporters.
“We gotta get this one,” he’ll say.
It was one of the qualities that stood out when Bjorkgren was coaching for nothing in the D-League.
Gary Garner saw it first-hand when he worked with Nurse and Bjorkgren as Nurse’s lead assistant with the Energy. Garner was a long-time Division I head coach at the time and connected with Nurse through the team’s owner. He quickly came to appreciate Nurse’s overall abilities – “student of the game,” “fire in the belly,” “great feel for the team and each of his players” were among Garner’s Nurse-related superlatives, but he was also quickly impressed by Bjorkgren.
“The best volunteer assistant coach in the history of basketball,” says Garner, now the head coach at Dakota State University. “He just worked his butt off. Ran from teaching school to the arena, wanted to learn everything he could. You knew he was going to make it in coaching, someway, somehow. But most importantly just a really good guy. I could talk about him for 20 minutes and not have a negative thing to say about him.”
Toronto’s coaching collection is a large group, with the members holding a variety of roles from Nurse’s right-hand men, all the way through to one of the league’s most successful player development crews. All the pieces matter. Others on staff include Alex McKechnie, who is also Toronto’s director of sports science; Former all-star and Toronto native Jamaal Magloire; Canadians Jon Goodwillie and John Corbacio, veteran player development coach Jim Sann, Patrick Mutombo, Brittni Donaldson, the youngest assistant coach in the NBA and one of only a handful of women; video coordinators/development coaches Tyler Marsh, Fabulours Flourney and Mark Tyndale and Courtney Charles, Shelby Weaver and John Bennett also on the development side.
Lowry and fellow all-star Pascal Siakam made it a point to make sure the rest of the team knew how important it was to get the staff to the all-star game, imploring them to play hard and get enough victories to make it happen (East-leading Milwaukee was ineligible, because Mike Budenholzer and Co. Went last year to Charlotte).
“We go through all of it together. All the hard work, they put in hard work,” Siakam said.
“I think it’s just important that we do that for them, too. Not that we didn’t want to win, or like, you know, be in second place or whatever. But knowing that is an extra motivation and something that we felt like we’ve got to go out there and do it and make sure they get an opportunity to be out there too.”
“I’m so happy for those guys,” Lowry said. “It was well-earned and well-deserved and it’s a representation of a team that were the champs last year and not being satisfied. Still hungry and just working harder and harder every day.”
Bjorkgren can’t wait to take it all in as he thinks back to those prior three trips, alongside Nurse. Back then, the coaches were just happy to get a glimpse of the NBA’s stars, a taste to fuel the hunger they had to reach the highest level.
“It was a lot different. When we went with the D-League all stars. It wasn’t (like the NBA’s glitzy bonanza),” Bjorkgren told Postmedia in a quiet moment.
They’ll coach the team captained by Milwaukee Bucks superstar and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, with Siakam and Lowry also on the roster.
It’s a dream come true for the two Iowans, who would often speak about what it might be like to experience an all-star weekend. Nurse was there as an assistant under Casey back in 2017, but returning as a head coach, with Bjorkgren and his hand-picked staff, will be special.
That it’s in Chicago is also meaningful. Nurse was born with a deep connection to the city. His late father, Maury, was stationed there, at Navy Pier, at the end of the Second World War. Growing up, Nurse and his family would often make the five-hour drive from Iowa to visit his sister – who was living in Chicago – and, as he got older, to watch Michael Jordan and the Bulls. He’s also a huge Cubs fan.
During the summer, Nurse got to live out another life-long dream. Alongside Bjorkgren and the rest of his staff, he brought the Larry O’Brien trophy to Wrigley Field, where he threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game and then led the seventh-inning stretch. Both Nurse and Bjorkgren expect to have plenty of family and friends in attendance for Sunday’s game.
Nurse enters the break with a record of 98-39 as an NBA head coach, making him the league’s all-time leader in winning percentage. His Raptors are 40-15, having won 15 of their last 16 games, and sit second in the East. Their success, despite losing Kawhi Leonard over the summer and dealing with an endless string of injuries to key players, makes him the early favourite for Coach of the Year honours.
Still, if you ask him, that’s a credit to his entire staff – Bjorkgren, Adrian Griffin and Sergio Scariolo (who will be away coaching the Spanish national team over all-star weekend) at the front of the bench, as well as Jim Sann, Patrick Mutombo, Jon Goodwillie and Brittni Donaldson, among many others talented contributors. Nurse is confident that many of them will be NBA head coaches one day.
Given what they’ve accomplished as a team over the past couple seasons, it’s only fitting that the coaches join Siakam and Lowry in Chicago this weekend. Given what they’ve meant to each other’s careers, it’s certainly fitting that Nurse and Bjorkgren get to enjoy the experience together.
Coach of the Year
Chopz: I think Nick Nurse and Erik Spoelstra both have a good case for this award. I’d lean with Nurse because nobody thought that Raptors team would be as good as they are this season after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency. A fun honorable mention is Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins. He has that team in a better spot than anyone predicted.
AC: There are plenty of surprises around the NBA, but who saw the Raptors running out to second place in the East after losing Kawhi Leonard? Nobody. The defending champs have been playing incredible basketball under the guidance of Nick Nurse so if you ask me, give it to the man who took over unceremoniously for Dwane Casey two seasons ago and has led Toronto to its two most successful seasons. Nurse is one of the few coaches in the league willing to make major in-game or game-to-game adjustments when most squads strictly stick to the same script.
Nurse though is not content with where this team is. He wasn’t content at this time a year ago and that’s when he had a definitive game-breaker in Leonard.
That type of player is not on the Raptors roster, but that doesn’t mean the dream of a second championship dies.
This is a well put together roster with probably more depth than a year ago and certainly a better idea of what it takes to win come playoff time.
Whether that’s enough to overcome the lack of a bona fide star, a guy like Leonard who is single-handedly capable of shutting down a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo while still carrying the largest chunk of the offensive load remains to be seen.
But what we do know is this Raptors team believes it can find a way. They have beaten the odds all season overcoming injury after injury to remain among the top two teams in the East.
They’ll have a little under two months once the schedule resumes to maintain that standing and prepare for a playoff run without the likes of Leonard and Green.
“We’ve got some growth to do and we need to do that for sure if we want to make a run at it again,” Nurse said.
– Toronto is handling the East and the departure of Kawhi Leonard better than expected. As the hottest team in the NBA are they an underrated contender? Katie Heindl from Raptors.com helps us to understand their season.
– How has the team managed to win despite Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and – – – Norman Powell all missing significant time?
– Masa Ujiri is the mastermind behind the roster construction but Toronto has one of the best player development teams in the NBA.
– Is Nick Nurse getting enough credit for the team’s defense and should he be more highly regarding in the Coach of the Year discussion?
– The team possesses a championship pedigree and calmness that is keeping them grounded and unafraid of anybody in the Easy, including the Milwaukee Bucks.
– Toronto stayed quite and deadline in hopes of keeping their chemistry tight, Katie explains to us more improvement could be coming from within once O.G. Anunoby gains his confidence.
Pascal Siakam will stand proudly with a Cameroonian countryman and another ascendant star with African roots at the NBA all-star game this weekend, beacons and role models for generations to come.
It is responsibility the Raptors forward feels, accepts and wants. He needs to show young players that dreams are possible with work and perseverance and opportunity.
He need only point to himself and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo — the son of Nigerian parents and captain of the all-star team that includes Siakam and Embiid — as proof.
“It means everything. It’s amazing to see … something that never happened before,” Siakam said before heading to Chicago for his first taste of all-star weekend. “It’s a historic moment and you just want to continue to enjoy it, and hopefully they’re looking at us and can see something that can motivate them.”
The kids in Cameroon and across Africa do indeed look at the two stars and see endless possibilities. There have been other all-stars with African roots — Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo come quickly to mind — and role players, such as Luol Deng and Luc Mbah a Moute, who blazed trails eventually taken by the likes of Siakam and Embiid.
But the success of those two and Antetokounmpo, all at the very height of the league and really just starting their careers, marks the first time so many with African roots have been so dominant at the same time.
“There is a lot of pride in this for all of us,” Embiid said.
It is not lost on his countryman.
Can they be a title contender without a true closer?
The Raptors are 15-1 in their past 16 games. In addition to Pascal Siakam’s leap (23.5 PPG), everyone from Fred VanVleet (18.0 PPG, 6.8 APG) to Kyle Lowry (19.6 PPG, 7.6 APG) to Serge Ibaka (16.1 PPG, 8.0 RPG) to Norman Powell (15.3 PPG) are playing with a level of confidence typically only reserved for the NBA’s elite. They’re also defending at an extremely high level (second-best defensive rating).
Ah, but the playoffs are a different game, and the Raptors know that all too well having seen the difference a playoff go-to guy like Kawhi Leonard makes over a regular-season go-to guy like DeMar DeRozan. Is Siakam ready to be that guy at the end of playoff games? I’m not convinced given his struggles in the mid-range. (He shoots under 37 percent on shots between three feet and the three-point line.) But that is often the best shot a team can manufacture in end of game possessions and one of the reasons Kawhi was so deadly last spring.
If Siakam isn’t ready for that role just yet, can Toronto overcome that simply by having five versatile, high-IQ players on the court at the end of games? We shall see.
The Raptors’ historic 15-game winning streak came to an end Wednesday against the Nets but despite the loss, the guys from Pardon the Interruption had good things to say about Toronto heading into the All-Star break.
Photo via Toronto Star
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