When Nick Nurse caught his coaching break in the unlikely British basketball backwater of Derby, his duties included driving the team bus and ensuring any laundry was gathered and cleaned.
Few would have predicted that, two decades later, he would have navigated the Toronto Raptors into their first-ever NBA Finals. Canada’s team know that they will not catch the Golden State Warriors asleep at the wheel. But the Eastern Conference victors certainly have a chance to steer themselves towards supremacy and deny their rivals a third successive championship.
It all tips off on Thursday with Game 1 (and 2) up in ‘The North’ and although the Raps are 3.50 underdogs to emerge with the Larry O’Brien trophy, there is the genuine prospect of Nurse possessing a roadmap towards a highly-competitive series.
"I don't care about being the best player. I want to be the best team.”
– Kawhi Leonard
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) May 26, 2019
These are not the Toronto of old, the fragile, marginal outlier of the league. Built upon Kawhi Leonard, as ferocious and supreme as he has ever been. “It's just his willing us to win,” Nurse affirmed. “Him grabbing those rebounds and willing those shots in almost it seems like and going down and locking up somebody and taking the ball from them. It's what it is – it's great competitive desire.”
Add in, perhaps, Nurse’s tinkering of their approach. Chemistry and culture are intangibles in the pursuit of greatness, often over-looked but also frequently over-rated.
Yet, with Leonard setting the lead, many have upped the resilience in unison with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka’s international pedigree, Pascal Siakam’s emergence as a disrupter and even Kyle Lowry no longer appearing one quarter away from possible anonymity.
It took tenacity and execution at both ends of the floor to retrieve a 2-0 deficit to the Milwaukee Bucks in the East Finals. Will and self-belief, under such circumstances, count for everything. Toronto will not arrive on this stage on a mission to savour the occasion. It will be win or bust, a desire enhanced by the knowledge that – if Leonard departs in the summer – this might be a one-run and done.
Kevin Durant is officially out for Game 1 of the Finals. pic.twitter.com/I9gBBmIyz5
— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) May 27, 2019
And defensively, the Raptors – who swept the regular season series 2-0 – have the capacity to limit, if not fully contain, Golden State. At least until (aka: the big IF of the Finals) Kevin Durant returns. Leonard can expect ample time corralling Steph Curry, Ditto, Lowry, with Klay Thompson also in their sights. Gasol, Ibaka, Danny Green and even Leonard can roam against bigs and smalls.
The Warriors, perhaps for the first time in these playoffs, will have to prevail with significant strands of strategy rather than outstanding talent alone. That may keep points at a premium even if their previous two meetings tallied 206 and 259 points (the latter, after overtime).
Leonard, certainly the best player of the post-season so far, is 3.50 to take his second Finals MVP. A coin toss with Steph Curry – the favourite at 1.70. Durant, likely absent until at least Game 3 in Oakland, will surely arrive too late to maximise his candidacy, although Thompson is a highly attractive alternative at 21.00 if he is able to restrain Leonard and bring his shooting touch to bear.
"Kawhi is the most like Jordan we've seen."
Doc Rivers has some high praise for Kawhi Leonard. pic.twitter.com/i1R2gR1VrT
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 29, 2019
Both sides are chasing history. A first NBA triumph heading outside of the USA. Once unthinkable, potentially unrepeatable. Or a three-peat for the Warriors, maybe their last with Durant in the vicinity. Only generational squads get three on the bounce. To achieve it now would put Steve Kerr’s collective among the immortals, all the most astonishing for the bumps which have appeared on the road this time around.
“When we put our game plan together, we ask the players what they think, and so it's a collaboration, and it's a real advantage,” Kerr advised. “I don't know how many teams in the league can say they have a genuine collaboration.
“But I felt that in Chicago as a player. I felt that in San Antonio as a player. When you have a combination of talent and really good human beings on the roster and a good coaching staff who knows what's going on and you collaborate, it's a pretty powerful force.”
Shoutout nick nurse he really got them to the finals. Adjusted on the fly against the Sixers, shut down the Bucks, stuck with Fred. Not bad at all for a rookie. pic.twitter.com/YdMMuYGBLx
— William Lou (@william_lou) May 26, 2019
And that is where we might find whether Nurse’s journey from nowhere to the summit has one more fantastical twist around the bend. Are these Raptors – a teasing 6.50 to triumph 4-3 in the best-of-seven duel – more than the sum of their parts, or simply an impressive whole that has hit its ceiling?
We already know how the Warriors live up to their name, with Durant in full gear or as a passenger standing aside. If they steal a 1-0 advantage on the road, they may be tough to resist and they are exceptional value – particularly with nine days rest – at a handicap of -4 at 2.55 in the Finals starter. The X-factor of giving themselves something to prove during the hiatus of their best player has simply added to their hunger. A priceless extra incentive, if one were required.
That points to Oakland celebrating by the close. However, Nurse, with all of Canada and a little of the UK behind him, will put his charges’ feet to the floor and hope maybe, just maybe, they can cause an upset and clean up.
Best bet: Take Golden State to win the NBA Finals 4-3 at 6.50.