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How a laid-back rookie head coach led the Raptors to their first title

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17.06.2019

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Just over a month removed from landing his dream job, Nick Nurse – the Iowa-born rookie head coach of the Toronto Raptors – sat in the lobby bar of the Encore hotel in Las Vegas sipping on carbonated water and snacking on a bowl of peanuts.

It was late July and one of the final stops on his country-wide summer tour visiting each of his players ahead of training camp. Nurse isn’t a big Vegas person. He had hoped to catch up with Kyle Lowry, who was there participating in a USA Basketball minicamp.

A basketball lifer, Nurse, 51, has coached around the world and at just about every level you can think of, but this would be his greatest challenge yet. What had he gotten himself into? Even he wasn’t quite sure yet.

What would Lowry’s mindset be coming into his first Raptors camp without DeMar DeRozan by his side? Nurse wasn’t sure. Lowry – still salty over the trade of his best friend a few weeks earlier – wasn’t speaking with him or any of the team’s brass at the time.

What kind of shape was the incoming Kawhi Leonard in after missing most of the previous season with a mysterious leg injury? Would he even be ready for camp? Nurse wasn’t sure. Their initial meeting in Toronto went well, but he hadn’t seen Leonard on the court.

He had just come from Miami, where he met with Serge Ibaka and first pitched the idea of bringing the veteran big man off the bench. He wasn’t sure what the rotation would look like.

Nurse didn’t have many answers, but he didn’t seem especially bothered. Even then he exuded calmness – atypical of a first-year head coach, let alone one that was inheriting a team with enormous expectations.

“Am I worried about any of it? No,” he told TSN in an exclusive sit-down interview. “Am I concerned about it? That’s probably not the right word either. But they’re things I always think about.”

***

After a brief stop in Vegas with his team following their championship win in Oakland on Thursday, Nurse arrived back in Toronto Saturday evening. He returned to a hero’s welcome.

Exactly 12 months after his promotion from an assistant on Dwane Casey’s staff to the lead chair, Nurse did something that only eight other coaches have ever done: win a title in their first year at the helm, joining – most recently – Tyronn Lue and the man he just beat, Steve Kerr.

The characteristic his team has been lauded for most is their poise. They never panicked. Down 1-0 to Orlando in the opening round, down 2-1 to Philadelphia in Round 2, or 2-0 to Milwaukee in the Conference Finals – they always kept their composure.

Leonard tends to get credit for that, as he should. He’s their best player and teams often adopt the personality of their best player. Kawhi is famously even-keeled and business-like, so it would make sense that the Raptors would be even-keeled and business-like. However, that approach starts at the top.

On the first day........

© TSN