Breaking Down Nick Nurse’s Fearlessness En Route to Coach of the Year

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Nick Nurse
Nick Nurse's fearlessness and innovative nature propelled him to NBA Coach of the Year honours (Photo by: Getty Images)

For basketball fans, there’s a feeling of gratitude that Nick Nurse didn’t decide to go in a different career direction other than coaching.

Nurse’s team in England was 8-8 when he wrote down four different career options in his hotel room. 

“I wrote down four other things I thought I might like doing and they all looked like absolute s**t to me, so I figured I better get working on coaching and figure it out,” Nurse told reporters on Saturday. 

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Nurse’s team in England went 26-10 that season. A transformative moment in a fleeting coaching career up until that point. 

The rest is history. D-League Championship and Coach of the Year with the Iowa Energy (now Iowa Wolves). An assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors for five years before getting the head coaching job. An NBA Championship in his first year as head coach, the first for the Raptors franchise. And now NBA Coach of the Year. 

Nurse credits the players and their stellar play for getting him to this point. But it is Nurse’s innovative nature and ability to coach fearlessly that cannot be understated. 

Look back to the Raptors title run for starters. The Raptors were down 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Philadelphia 76ers, after Joel Embiid put up a double-double 33 points and 10 rebounds. 

In Game 4, Nurse made the pivotal defensive adjustment to put in a bigger lineup, most notably having Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol on the court at the same time to slow down Embiid. 

It worked. The Raptors won Game 4 101-96 en route to winning the series, and the team limited Embiid to just 11 points on 2-of-7 shooting from the field. 

Joel Embiid Shot Chart in Game 4 Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. Raptors (Chart via Basketball-Reference)

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In the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors were down 2-0. It called for a Nurse intervention to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo in transition. 

The solution? Put Kawhi Leonard, one of the best defensive players in the NBA, on Antetokounmpo. 

As you can see above, there were multiple times Antetokounmpo quickly passed to a Bucks teammate rather than take on Leonard. The Bucks star player often did not post up on Leonard and the other Raptors players assisted Leonard with double teams and traps, making it hard for Antetokounmpo to attack the rim in the paint. When Giannis tried to drive the basket, Leonard’s length forced turnovers and blocked shots. 

The Raptors also formulated a wall against Antetokounmpo, particularly in transition making it difficult for the big man to get into the paint. 

In the 131 possessions that Kawhi defended Giannis through the first five games according to The Ringer, the 2019 NBA MVP shot 11-of-31 (35.5 percent) from the field. In Game 6, Antetokounmpo recorded 21 points on 7-of-18 shooting from the field. 

Nurse’s strategy of the Raptor defense making life difficult for Giannis in the middle of the paint, the mid-range and beyond the arc propelled Toronto to come back from a 0-2 deficit, advancing to the franchise’s first NBA Finals. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo Shot Chart in Game 6 Eastern Conference Finals vs. Raptors (Chart via Basketball-Reference)

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Who can forget Nurse’s “Box-and-One” defensive strategy against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, which Steph Curry called “janky.” 

When Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet guarded Curry in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, he limited the Warriors two-time MVP to four points and 1-of-6 shooting from the field. 

Whether Curry had the ball or it was off-the-ball, VanVleet constantly followed the Warriors point guard, making him pass the ball quickly to teammates or take contested shots. 

As for the “Box-and-One” zone defense, it was a bold strategy from Nurse to force all the attention on Curry with no Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, sagging off the Warriors shooters. Since the Warriors didn’t have many perimeter threats other than Curry, the Raptors zone defense got the Warriors out of rhythm, leading to uncomfortable shots from beyond the arc. 

Not coaching scared is a defining principle of Nurse’s meteoric success in the NBA. With no Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, coupled with a plethora of injuries, Nurse coached the Raptors to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, third in the NBA (46-18, .719). 

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Remember when Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka were out and the Raptors took on LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers early in the season? No problem for Nurse, who put out a Raptors lineup that saw double-digit performances from Chris Boucher (15 points), Terence Davis (13 points) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (10 points), while reducing LeBron to 33 percent shooting from the field. 

Damian Lillard, capturing the headlines in the NBA Restart with his red-hot shooting from long range, was locked down when the Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers back in November. Nurse utilized the “Box-and-One” (briefly) while using VanVleet and Hollis-Jefferson to trap Lillard constantly. 

Damian Lillard Shot Chart vs. Raptors in November 2019 (Chart via Basketball-Reference)

The Raptors held Lillard to nine points on 2-of-12 shooting. 

Despite the Raptors losing to the Houston Rockets in December 119-109, Nurse sent two defenders on James Harden when he crossed the half-court, switching to a defender on the Rockets guard when he didn’t have the ball.

The result? 23 points on 11 shots for Harden. If it wasn’t for the other Rockets players not named Harden converting 19 threes, perhaps the Raptors could’ve won that game. 

But it once again demonstrates Nurse’s ability to innovate. 

Even in the first round of the 2019-20 NBA Playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets, Nurse has successfully taken away the Nets’ primary scoring option, evidenced by their “triangle and two” defense on Ceris LeVert. 

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With more difficult competition upcoming, it will once again force Nurse to be creative and experiment. This is nothing new for the newly-anointed NBA Coach of the Year. 

His lack of fear coaching, from England to the D-League and now the NBA, sets Nurse apart from his peers. He’s overcome adversity because of his desire to prove the doubters wrong. 

Now that he has reached the highest pinnacle of NBA coaching, Nurse is grateful for those experiences in different leagues that prepared him for this moment. 

“I think that my training gave me a chance to try a lot of different things,” Nurse said. “I guess when I finally did make it to the NBA as an assistant and kinda saw some things, I thought if I ever got a chance to become a head coach, a lot of the things that I tried in some of those back-water places I thought maybe would still work.”

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