Fred VanVleet

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Nick Nurse’s nomadic coaching path takes him to NBA title

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Whenever Toronto coach Nick Nurse needed inspiration this season, he merely needed to look at his office wall.

Hanging there is a big photo, a finish-line shot of the 2015 Travers Stakes at historic Saratoga Race Course. There are two horses in the frame; one is Triple Crown winner and overwhelming favorite American Pharoah, the other is Keen Ice – who wasn’t getting much attention from bettors and had never won on such a big stage.

Keen Ice ran a perfect race that day, and knocked off the champion.

“I just really like the picture,” Nurse said.

Yes, and there’s symmetry now. His Raptors ran a perfect race – and knocked off the two-time NBA champions.

Nurse, a 51-year-old basketball journeyman who has been a coach for 13 different teams in four countries over the last 30 years, is now the coach of the best team in the world. Unknown no more and someone who never will be anonymous again, Nurse guided the Raptors to their first NBA championship in a six-game defeat of the Golden State Warriors.

“I think you can’t do very good work if you don’t love what you’re doing,” Nurse said after the Raptors dethroned the Warriors on Thursday night. “I just, I don’t know, I never really got discouraged. I didn’t really care at the level I was coaching at, I was just trying to learn and get better. That’s it.”

Clearly, he learned. And he got better.

Toronto defeated Orlando, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Golden State in these playoffs. That means Nurse, 0-0 as an NBA coach before this season, got his team past ones coached by Steve Clifford, Brett Brown, Mike Budenholzer and Steve Kerr. That foursome is about the toughest draw a first-year coach in the league could get in his maiden postseason voyage.

“He’s one of the hardest-working coaches I’ve seen,” Raptors assistant Jamaal Magloire said during Toronto’s victory celebration after the title-clinching win. “When it comes to this team’s success, he deserves every bit of it.”

Nurse played at Northern Iowa, started his coaching career there as an assistant and wound up becoming a head coach at Grand View University when he was just 23. He coached in Belgium and Britain. He won a pair of British Basketball League titles as a coach, in Birmingham in 1996 and London in 2000, then got a couple titles in what is now called the G League.

The second G League crown got him noticed. He was at Rio Grande Valley, guided them to a title in 2013 and that’s when the Raptors called and wanted to talk to him about offense. They ended up hiring him as an assistant.

“I remember the day well,” Nurse said. “Good day.”

And there’s some symmetry to it as well. Nurse’s last G League team at Rio Grande Valley won the title series over Santa Cruz – ironically, the Warriors’ affiliate.

“Oh, man, I’m happy for him,” Raptors guard Danny Green said.

Nurse is quirky, in a way that shows he’s secure doing his own thing.

He often arrived for pregame media sessions wearing a black Nike cap bearing his initials. He carries his guitar on road trips. He will be remembered for throwing a box-and-one defense at Warriors guard Stephen Curry during the NBA Finals, a scheme that probably had never been previously used by anyone in the title series.

He has paid his dues.

The G League, the BBL, the United States Basketball League, the Belgian League, NCAA Division I basketball, NAIA basketball, and now the NBA. Nurse has done the laundry. He’s done the driving. He did some of those jobs for almost no money at all, maybe a couple hundred dollars or so a week.

And now he’s the ninth coach to win a title in his first NBA season. Coaching nomads everywhere have a new hero now.

“I would hope it inspires some people that are in those situations to keep working,” Nurse said. “I always say that all those jobs meant the world to me at the time, right, winning with Birmingham in `96, winning with Rio Grande Valley, whatever year that was. And those games and jobs meant the world to me.”

His world is much different now.

For someone who has never chased attention, it’ll be unavoidable when the Raptors defend their NBA title next season.

“Nick has been unbelievable,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “He’s kind of been the captain of the ship, and he’s weathered the storms, and he’s kept us even-keeled, and he’s made some unusual adjustments and experimented with things. And some things worked and some things didn’t, but he was trying. He tried everything and you’ve got to give that guy a lot of credit in his first year to win a NBA championship.”

 

Here’s what Warriors were thinking on Stephen Curry’s final shot

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If I told you that Stephen Curry was going to get the final shot to stave off elimination in an NBA Finals game, nobody would bat an eye. But on Thursday night as the Golden State Warriors took on the Toronto Raptors in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, many were left scratching their heads about the play called for Curry that would have saved their season.

With 9.6 seconds to go and the Warriors down by just one point, Golden State had a sideline out-of-bounds play drawn up. It began with a series of crosses between Draymond Green, Quinn Cook, and Curry.

Initially it appeared that Cook might be open on the near corner. Nobody would put it past Kerr to call a play with an option for a role player: remember it was the Warriors coach who famously said that only fans want star players to take the final shot because “people are idiots”.

But in classic Warriors fashion, the play was more devious than that. Andre Iguodala‘s inbound pass went to the far side of the floor — nearly out of play — to Green, who was being fronted by Pascal Siakam. As the pass came in, Curry rounded a screen at the top of the arc by DeMarcus Cousins.

The pass across the court, although it looked wild, was purposeful. Much like the Golden State offense itself, the travel of the ball was implemented as a way to draw the eyes of off-ball defenders away from what was really happening. As the pass went to Green, Serge Ibaka naturally started to float that direction and ball watch. As he did so, he turned his back on the most dangerous shooter in NBA history.

That’s exactly what the Warriors wanted.

With Fred VanVleet still fighting over Cousins’ screen, and Ibaka’s attention locked onto Green, the space Golden State wanted was created. Ibaka was a step too far into the lane to recover tightly on Curry. Miraculously, the Warriors guard was open on the far side, right next to Green and ready for a pass.

Of course, the result of the play was a clanked shot for Curry and a scuffle for the ball that wound up with Green calling a timeout the Warriors didn’t have. A cluster of officiating took the gas out of the initial Raptors celebration, but the result was the first-ever Finals win for Toronto.

Some may still argue that it was a poor shot for Golden State. Fine. The Warriors created the space they needed, and if there is a guy you want taking that shot, Curry has to be one of the top choices. This play is a Brad Stevens extravaganza that has been run with success before, so it’s not as wild as everyone has made it out to be.

There were a lot of factors that led to Golden State losing this game, and the final shot was not the most important one. Injuries, depth, and defensive prowess are probably higher up the list for Kerr.

Meanwhile, Curry is going to want to have that one back. No doubt this Golden State team will be jonesing for another chance at an NBA Finals appearance next year.

Raptors get validation

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Of course, the Raptors had to wait.

The final second of Game 6 of the NBA Finals took nearly seven minutes. This was never going to be easy for Toronto.

But when the game finally ended – 114-110 with the Raptors as NBA champions – it was oh so satisfying.

Toronto was built boldly then played boldly, upsetting the heavily favored Warriors and gaining validation.

Masai Ujiri upended a successful team in pursuit of something better. Don’t let the payoff totally obscure the risk. Disrupting the best era in franchise history for an injured star was always a real gamble.

Validated.

Kawhi Leonard requested a trade from the Spurs, who are widely viewed as the NBA’s model organization. He couldn’t control where they sent him. He just knew he’d be better off elsewhere. Now, Leonard joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Bucks and Lakers) and LeBron James (Heat and Cavaliers) as the only players to win Finals MVP with multiple teams.

Validated.

Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol have thrown everything into becoming the best players and teammates they could be. But they still toiled for years – Lowry in Toronto, Gasol in Memphis –  trying to get over the hump with team success. Now, Lowry (13th season) and Gasol (11th season) join a short list of multi-time All-Stars who waited so long to win their first title but got it while still starting.*

Validated.

*Jason Kidd (2011 Mavericks, 17th season), Dirk Nowitzki (2011 Mavericks, 13th season), Shawn Marion (2011 Mavericks, 12th season), Kevin Garnett (2008 Celtics, 13th season), Ray Allen (2008 Celtics, 12th season), Michael Finley (2007 Spurs, 12th season), Glen Rice (2000 Lakers, 11th season), Clyde Drexler (1995 Rockets, 12th season), Jerry West (1972 Lakers, 12th season), Oscar Robertson (1971 Bucks, 11th season)

Pascal Siakam took to basketball just eight years ago, committing to the sport to honor his late father. He rose from Basketball Without Borders in Africa to New Mexico State to an NBA bench role to likely winning Most Improved Player this season. On the biggest stage, he put his stamp on this series.

Validated.

Serge Ibaka cares about his standing within the league. Don’t get him started on how many times he has been snubbed for a defensive award. But he accepted a reserve role this season and just focused on doing his job well. He still still found multiple times to come up big in the Finals.

Validated.

As an undrafted free agent, Fred VanVleet chose a team with three point guards – Lowry, Cory Joseph and Delon Wright – with guaranteed salaries. Most teams kept only three points guards at that time. VanVleet believed in himself and gradually earned a role in Toronto. He hit so many big shots in this series and scored 22 in the Game 6 clincher.

Validated.

Nick Nurse coached at one basketball outpost after another. He shuffled between Great Britain, Belgium, small college, U.S. minor leagues. It wasn’t always a glamorous life. Eventually, he got his shot coaching the Raptors and pushed so many right buttons in the Finals.

Validated.

Twenty-four years ago, the NBA put two expansion franchises in Canada. The Grizzlies left Vancouver just six years later for Memphis. The Raptors remained in Toronto. They remained through losing seasons. They remained as star after star left. They remained as the team got just good enough to get heartbroken annually in the playoffs.

They remained for this.

Validation.

Fred VanVleet’s Game 6 encapsulates depth of Raptors in NBA Finals

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Fred VanVleet outscored Stephen Curry in the closing game of an NBA Finals series. Let that sink in for a moment.

Curry, the face of the Golden State Warriors franchise and an internationally renowned 2-time MVP was out-dueled by an undrafted guard from Wichita State. This is a man who went on a tear in Game 4 after getting almost no sleep the night before thanks to the birth of his son. He was unpredictable, but resilient. VanVleet was exactly what Toronto needed.

VanVleet scored 22 points, going 5-of-11 from 3-point range on Thursday night as the Toronto Raptors beat the Warriors in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. VanVleet stepped up when Toronto needed him most, hitting clutch buckets including a 26-foot step back 3-pointer with 3:46 to go and the game tied, 101-101.

The Raptors never trailed again after that bucket, and VanVleet’s shot was an encapsulation example of why Toronto was able to stop the Warriors dynasty in its tracks. In each game in this series, it was the effort of lesser publicized players in — addition to Kawhi Leonard — that helped them beat Curry and his band of All-Stars. It was the perfect ending to a fairy tale season for Toronto.

A month ago, the Raptors were down by a margin of 2-0 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Leonard was the only player performing up to the task, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and his No. 1-seeded Bucks looked like they were headed to the NBA Finals to take on the Warriors.

But Nick Nurse got the rest of his team in shape, and the supporting cast in Ontario finally started firing on all cylinders. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, and VanVleet all started having big games. Just about everyone worked themselves out of their funk save for Danny Green.

These Finals were more than about one player. It was about Leonard being the Finals MVP, yes. But the Raptors adapted to Golden State’s defensive plan by finding a way for a new player to contribute more than his value on paper each and every night.

In Game 1 it was Siakam going for 32 points, eight rebounds, and five assists.

In Game 3 it was about Green finally coming alive, scoring 18 points, all on 3-pointers.

In Game 5 it was about Serge Ibaka scoring 20 points in 22 minutes, going 9-of-12 from the field.

In this way, VanVleet’s performance on Thursday night fits perfectly into the story of the NBA Finals for the Raptors.

Leonard solidified himself as one of the best players on the planet, and perhaps reframed how we feel about his debacle with the San Antonio Spurs last season. But with VanVleet coming out hot and shooting well from beyond the arc — really from a Game 3 on — he added detail and texture to the narrative of one of the most interesting championship runs in recent NBA memory.

On Thursday, it took a team in the truest sense to beat a superteam, and that’s exactly what happened. The Toronto Raptors are your 2019 NBA Champions thanks in no small part to Fred VanVleet.

Raptors dethrone Warriors to win Toronto’s first NBA title

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OAKLAND — In the end, the injuries were too much.

Too much for the emotion of the final night at Oracle Arena — and a deafening crowd — to overcome.

Too much for the greatness Stephen Curry to overcome — although he got a good look at the game-winning shot and just could not get it to fall.

Too much against an outstanding Toronto Raptors team that was resilient all season and came out on fire in Game 6, setting a tone that would lead them win all three games on the road at Oracle Arena in this series. The Raptors were too good, too deep, they had too much Kyle Lowry early, and too much Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard when it mattered.

Toronto made the plays late against a shorthanded Warriors squad and hung on a 114-110 win — giving the Raptors the win and Toronto its first NBA title.

The Raptors accepted the Larry O’Brien trophy in front of hundreds of Toronto fans who had traveled south with the team to witness history. Those fans were loud and had the passion that a first-time champion can inspire.

Leonard — picked up last summer on a huge roll of the dice by GM Masai Ujiri, trading away the franchise’s greatest and most popular player in DeMar DeRozan — was named Finals MVP in a redemptive moment. Leonard has missed all but nine games the previous season with a quad tendon injury, one that had fans and people around the league wondering if he would ever be the same again.

In this series, he looked like the best player on the planet.

Still, a shadow hung over this game.

Warriors’ All-Star Klay Thompson went down in the third quarter with an ugly left knee injury when he was fouled on a dunk. Thompson landed awkwardly then laid on the ground in clear pain. He came back to a huge ovation to take a couple free throws.

However, the Warriors subbed Thompson out after that, and soon he would be ruled out for the night (later an MRI confirmed an ACL tear). It made Thompson a spectator at the end. Just like Kevin Durant (who was in New York recovering from surgery to repair a torn Achilles suffered in Game 5).

“I mean more than the what-ifs is just feeling bad for the players involved,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Injuries are always part of the NBA season — any professional sport, injuries play a huge role. It’s just the nature of these injuries, the severity of these injuries… But it’s just brutal. It’s just brutal of what these guys have had to deal with and what they’re dealing with right now.”

It wasn’t just Durant and Thompson. Kevon Looney was playing through a fractured collar bone. Andre Iguodala was hobbling with a calf injury. DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t moving well coming off a torn quad. It forced Steve Kerr to reach deep into his bench throw out lineups not ready for the NBA Finals… and yet it almost worked.

Not against these Raptors, however.

Lowry — the face of the Raptors organization now — set the tone early. He was aggressive and red-hot, scoring the game’s first eight points and he finished the first quarter with 15 on 5-of-6 shooting. The Raptors led for much of the first quarter, but eventually Game 6 Thompson showed up, scoring 10 in the frame, and by the end it was 33-32 Raptors in a game where both teams had offensive ratings north of 118.

The second quarter was back and forth, but a theme started to emerge — the Warriors could not slow this Raptors offense, the only way Golden State was going to win was with an offensive avalanche. It was a change because defense had been the Warriors’ calling card through this run of five straight trips to the Finals. Golden State had the best defense in the NBA when this core won its first title in 2014-15, and over the next two seasons they were sixth and second in the league. The D took a step back in the 2017-18 season to 11th in the league during the regular season, but the Warriors cranked it up and had the best defense in the playoffs last season on their way to another title.

This season the Warriors were not the same on that end.

And the Raptors had scorers. Lowry and Siakam each scored 26, while Leonard and Fred VanVleet each had 26. In Game 5 the Raptors thought a their loss at home was largely due to struggling from three, but they were 13-of-33 (39.4 percent) in Game 6.

The Raptors had a 116.5 offensive rating in Game 6, for some perspective that would have been tied for the best regular season average of any team (the Warriors). Toronto attacked the Golden State centers off the dribble and, with the injuries, Steve Kerr ran out of options to counter it.

He ran out of options in this series overall, and Toronto had all the answers. Toronto was the better team and it is the champion.