OAKLAND — For fans, Toronto coach Nick Nurse turning to a box-and-one defense in the middle of an NBA Finals game seemed insane.
For Raptors players, they had seen this before.
Not the box-and-one exactly, that was new, but the idea of Nurse being willing to experiment, to not play it safe. Nurse threw these kinds of challenges at his players all season long. The Raptors played more defensive schemes and changed things up more than most teams — certainly more than Dwane Casey had done previously — with the goal of making the Raptors more versatile. More nimble.
The players believe that’s part of the reason they are here.
“Nothing Nick does surprises me now on the on the court as a coach,” Kyle Lowry said. “It doesn’t surprise me….
“And a lot of the times the situations that he puts us in are to be successful. He’s done a good job of this year letting Pascal [Siakam] play kind of point forward games and putting different type of offenses and schemes and defensive schemes. He’s been really good.
“We’re in The Finals for a reason, and he’s helped us get here.”
Toronto played it safe as an organization for years, and it was leading to them stalling out in the playoffs. No longer. Now those Raptors’ players trust Nurse to come up with the plan that gives them the best shot — in Game 3 Wednesday night, and in the series — to knock off the two-time defending champs.
Danny Green played for arguably the greatest NBA coach of all time in Gregg Popovich, but he operated in a very different way than Nurse, Green said. For this team, Nurse’s strategies worked.
“When we change up the defense, throw something random out there throughout the season, we’re kind of prepared at certain times to jump into anything new, anything different,” Green said. “It may not be the greatest idea, but it will throw the offense off and slow them down some. Which [the box-and-one] did. They didn’t know what we were playing or what we were doing, and it got them out of rhythm a little bit.
“But doing that throughout the season has helped us adjust mentally to know at some point we could try something weird.”
Toronto let go of the Coach of the Year in Casey just for this — more creative offense, someone more innovative. Team president Masai Ujiri thought they needed to be more innovative and less safe — and to add Kawhi Leonard — to get over the hump and into the Finals. The players have come to respect and trust Nurse.
“I guess a guy that thinks outside the box,” Leonard said of what he sees in his coach. “He coached at a lot of different levels, seen a lot of different games, coached a lot of NBA games. I really can’t remember right now just on the spot of what he has done, but that’s just how he is. He is experimental, and a lot of times what he draws up on the board works.”
Even when those strategies have not worked on the court, they have been learning experiences. Nurse has been communicative with his veteran team about what they thought of his experiments.
“Some have worked, some haven’t,” Green said. “New coach first year. But he has a lot of strategies that work and he wants to hear what we feel comfortable with and implementing.”
So when he turned to them and suggested a box-and-one, the players wanted to know what that would look like. Nurse drew it up on the whiteboard, they recognized the zone coverage basics of it, and with Lowry leading the way they trusted that it could work — it didn’t matter what stage they were on, this was not the time to play it safe.
It worked, almost well enough to complete the comeback.
The Raptors will trust Nurse adjustments — and any other experiments he tries — will work and get them a game on the road in this series. Maybe Wednesday night in Game 3.