This season, the Raptors have had to contend with a 72-game schedule being played in warp speed, Kyle Lowry has had a toe infection, Fred VanVleet’s had a hip issue, OG Anunoby missed time with a calf injury, and there was also the time missed by players like Pascal Siakam due to health and safety protocols. Managing all of that takes a tremendous level of expertise and Nurse appreciates what the organization has in place to help get the best out of them.
“We’ve got the best people in the world taking care of these guys, it’s what they do, it’s what they’ve done for their whole lives,” Nurse says. “Part of my training growing up as a coach, yes, I wanted to learn X’s and O’s and I wanted to learn basketball, but what I was trying to do is look at it holistically: What are all the things that go into a player performing their best? I studied a lot of sports psychology, a lot of biomechanics, studied a lot of conditioning and, again, mental preparation and peak performance mentally and things like that. So, it all goes into the broader view I have as a coach of getting players to perform at their peak level at the right times.”
Toronto has now won four straight in a bid to make the play-in tournament, which could be followed by potentially taking his seat as head coach of Team Canada in Victoria for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in late June, and then Tokyo if they qualify. Throw in the work he puts in for his foundation—the Nick Nurse Foundation—that’s been operational for just over a year now and focuses on bringing together his passion for music, sports, and literacy, and his schedule is as busy as it gets.
Nurse’s expectation of winning stops at nothing, though, and as Team Canada’s head coach he’ll be looking to lead the country to its first basketball Olympic medal since winning silver at the 1936 Games. Which NBA players he can utilize remains to be seen with the significant physical toll they’ve undertaken over the course of the season, but Nurse is ready to capitalize on the opportunity ahead for Canada.
“It looks like we’re going to get great participation, there’ll be a lot of talent there that we’re going to mold quickly and come together quickly and sacrifice a lot. And not waste any words or minutes, you get to work and try to achieve something that I tell these guys they’re going to be telling their grandkids about for the rest of their lives.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of them on an Olympics [team] and just about every time I think about it, it sends chills down my spine. I want these guys to have that experience too. It’s a golden age for basketball in Canada. And this would be another golden moment to put an emphasis on that.”
Nurse is all about living in the moment and making the most of it, and despite all the Raptors have been through to this point, he’s managed to stay away from being dragged down by it with his favourite side project: learning new instruments. Nurse’s makeshift home in Tampa is filled with paintings and records of musicians he loves, and he drowns himself in music he loves by artists from Johnny Cash to Prince to Bob Marley to Dallas Green to the Arkells. Beyond just taking him away for a little while, it also gives him a better sense of where he wants to be.
“It’s calming in one sense but it’s also stimulating,” Nurse says. “I’m learning to play instruments because I think it sparks creativity and I want to remain creative and try to have new ideas come to me, and they say it helps. I feel like it does help me, so I continue to push forward with that stuff.”
There’s no 30 minutes available any more, no 20 shots to be taken, but players who have been carrying large loads and making an impact are now being asked to do close to the same thing in limited opportunities.
It didn’t work well at all in a Saturday loss to New York, when the backup group of Gary Trent Jr., Yuta Watanabe, Freddy Gillespie and Malachi Flynn was ineffective. It might have been an outlier — no one’s going to be really good every night — but the fact is, any good team needs at least a modicum of production off the bench every game.
When Trent and Flynn were starting and Watanabe was getting major minutes, they could ease into games. That’s no longer the case.
“It’s a tough thing to do when you come in the NBA, coming off the bench in limited minutes, especially these guys that have been playing a bunch of minutes over the last two weeks,” VanVleet said Saturday. “I have confidence that they’ll figure it out. (Saturday) was just one of those days, but I think that coming in with a defensive mind, energy, being vocal and just flying around (is necessary).
“You’ve got to look at it: Gary was at 19 minutes, Freddie 13, Yuta 14. Those have got to be the hardest 14 minutes of your life. It’s tough to find that groove, but I think they’ll figure it out.”
Make no mistake, the final 12 games of the regular season will be as much about learning who can handle what roles in the future as about the present.
The Raptors seem set at three starting positions — VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam — and that’s a solid base to build on. Chris Boucher would seem to be a lock as a backup to Siakam, and the Raptors are intrigued by the possibility he might turn into a small forward at some time.
But with questions about point guard Kyle Lowry’s future — he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in the off-season — and the possibility of an upgrade at centre, there are jobs to be had.
Finding out where (or if) Trent, Watanabe, Gillespie, Khem Birch and Paul Watson fit is part of the discovery process the rest of this season.
Some are likely to return — for the sake of continuity, and because of their talent and developmental possibilities — but nothing is for sure, and what they show in these final games will have an impact.