Maybe the regular season really is just 82 games of practice as the Raptors Kawhi Leonard describes it and the entire Golden State organization seems to treat things before the real season starts in April. Then, as head coach Nick Nurse admitted, it took a punch in the gut from the seventh place Orlando Magic to wake his team up to the fact the postseason was here.
“It took one punch in the gut from the Orlando Magic to understand we’d better start playing a lot harder,” Nurse responded to Pro Bball Report after winning the Eastern Conference Final. “I think we came out in Game 2 and you saw a totally different basketball team that started using their abilities to the best of their ability. That’s really the difference.”
After losing game one to the Magic, the Raptors crushed their first round opponent in four straight games, holding Orlando to an average of just 89 points and winning by an 18.8 point margin.
However, Nurse might have continued with this line of thought. His team got down 2-1 in the Philly series before upping their game to take three of the next four. In the Raptors four wins they held the 76ers to just 92.5 points, but gave up 107.3 in the three loses.
Then in Milwaukee the Raptors got punched in the gut yet again, twice, as the Bucks averaged 116.5 points to grab a 2-0 lead. Toronto waking up at home to play the level of defense they are capable of and take the next four in a row by holding the Bucks to just 97.8 points during regulation time (101.8 counting OT).
Nurse’s Raptors haven’t been starting series playing as hard as they can, but they have shown an ability to “flip the switch” defensively.
“Now, listen, we’ve learned and grown as well,” Nurse continued. “Our communication, scheme, switching, blitzing. Our rotations, contesting shots, all those things have been growing here since the start of the playoffs. The other thing is there are some moments, like stretches, we call them consecutive stops, and there are some stretches where it’s darned hard to complete a pass against us. That wears into a team after a while when you’re up into them and you’re denying and everybody is just that connected and playing that hard.”
That ability to stop a team from scoring for extended periods of time was on full display in games five and six against the Bucks as Milwaukee built double-digit leads in the third quarter of both games only to go ice-cold as Toronto took it away from them.
At this level it’s effort that separates the winners from the losers. Every team has elite talent, a superstar to lean on and can bury you offensively if you start taking possessions off.
“We end up showing all these clips and all these coverages and all these matchups and all these things and blah, blah, blah. Almost at the end of it every time, I say, This is about 15 percent of the game,” Nurse said. “The rest of it is are we going to sprint back and are we going to communicate great and are we going to get physical, are we going to get into bodies, are we going to block out with some toughness. I can keep going on and on, but that’s where the 85 percent comes from.”
Nurse has to be hoping that when the Warriors come to town to start the NBA Finals his Raptors don’t need another “punch in the gut” to get going. Golden State has an ability to hit a lot harder than anyone else.