Nick Nurse prides himself as a master of preparation in his role as the first-year head coach of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, even to the point of seeing how the job is conducted in other sports.
On Thursday, Nurse will lead the Raptors in one of Toronto’s biggest statement games of the season when the dynamic Milwaukee Bucks come to town for a battle between the two Eastern Conference heavyweights.
The teams are neck and neck in a fight for a first-place finish in the conference and the home playoff edge that would generate when the heavy slogging of the playoffs rolls around in April.
The Bucks (36-13) arrive in Toronto a couple of percentage points ahead of the Raptors (37-15) for top spot and have won seven of their past eight games. The Raptors are returning home after a three-game road swing in which they won one of three.
Against the Bucks, the Raptors will be butting heads against Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the NBA’s top performers and the East captain for the all-star game. The Greek Freak, as he is widely known, is averaging 26.5 points, 12.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists this season.
Toronto is led by its own all-star starter, Kawhi Leonard, who is solid at both ends of the court. Leonard leads Toronto with an average of 27.9 points a game.
Thursday night’s match has implications for the all-star game, too. The coach whose team is sporting the best record heading into the Feb. 17 game in Charlotte will coach the East. So, added incentive to both Nurse and Mike Budenholzer, his Milwaukee counterpart.
Despite what’s at stake against the Bucks, on Wednesday reporters pressed Nurse about Sunday’s Super Bowl tussle between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams.
“You guys know I’m a big Rams fan,” Nurse said, instantly warming to the topic. “I’ve been a Rams fan since I was a little kid. Going for the Rams, no doubt about it.”
Being an ardent Rams supporter seems a bit off given that Nurse, 51, grew up in small-town Carroll, Iowa, where most of his neighbourhood buddies rooted for the Minnesota Vikings, who played in the adjoining state to the north.
“I was swimming against the current,” Nurse admitted. “I liked James Harris, their quarterback at the time. I got a No. 12 jersey and became a Rams fan then.”
It is a connection that Nurse continues to explore. Several weeks after he was hired as the Raptors coach in mid-July, Nurse was in Irvine, Calif., at the Rams training facility, watching how second-year coach Sean McVay comported himself.
“I got to talk to coach McVay and watch their practice and got to speak to some other people out there,” Nurse said. “It was kind of cool,” he added, comparing himself to a little kid gawking at all the goings-on at training camp.
In basketball, coaches have to direct five players at a time, playing at both ends of the court. In the NFL, there are 11 a side with different athletes playing on offence and on defence.
Although the differences between the games are vast, Nurse said he was able to pick up some pointers.
“I see a lot of similarities offensively in how the plays are called, how you organize things,” Nurse said. “Football is a pretty complex numbering system most of the time. Run the three back through the four-hole, things like that.
“We kind of do the same thing – the three man sets for the four, or whatever.”
Nurse said he was also struck by the complex organizational skills needed by football head coaches.
“I just wanted to talk to him [McVay] about the process of calling plays and getting them … to his head, to his quarterback, and how they organize things prior,” Nurse said. “They’ve got those play-call sheets. We talked a lot about play-call names. He’s got a lot of fun play-call names as well. He’s really good offensively.
“He’s changed some things there. They went from 30th to first in his first year as a head coach. I was just trying to pick his brain and see if I can learn anything offensively.”
Nurse said he has even incorporated some nuances from the CFL into his Raptors playbook.
“Even when I go watch the CFL, when they [the players] start before the ball is snapped,” Nurse said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we do that on some of our out-of-bounds plays where the referee hasn’t thrown it in and our guys are moving.
“I got that idea watching the Argonauts play one day. … There’s some crossover.”
As for the outcome of the Super Bowl, Nurse is among those football fans who view the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady – who have had consistent success in reaching and winning the big game – as the Evil Empire.
“Nothing sweeter than beating those guys,” Nurse said. “Nothing sweeter.”
A convincing win over Milwaukee on Thursday might run a close second.