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Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets

The Rap-Up: Nick Nurse continues finding new ways to succeed

When you win a championship in your first year, there should be no way to go but down. Nick Nurse, like many things, has turned that concept on its head by consistently finding creative ways to help the Raptors win!

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Nick Nurse is at it again!

The mad scientist masquerading as the Toronto Raptors’ head coach continues finding new ways to create advantages on the basketball court.

In the 2019-2020 season, the Raptors, along with the Bucks and Clippers, were among the top 4 in three-pointers allowed... and also in the top 4 in defensive rating!

In the 2020-2021 season, the Raptors used a strategy never before seen in the Masai Ujiri era in which they lost a bunch of games and came away with a future All-Star.

Last season, the Raptors initiated Vision 6’9, unleashing hell on the offensive glass (#2 in offensive rebounds) and owning the turnover battle (#2 in turnovers on offense AND defense).

This season, the Raptors continue winning the turnover battle (#1 in turnovers on offense AND defense) but now they’ve turned their attention to the defensive glass, ranking 1st in defensive rebounding percentage. As a result, Toronto ranks 1st in transition points per possession from steals AND live rebounds.

If there’s anything to learn from Nurse, it’s that we simply need to sit back and enjoy the ride! He’s going to continue playing odd lineups and running weird schemes, but that’s just par for the course. Because when Nick Nurse tries something new, more often than not, he finds success!

Now let’s see if I can continue having success predicting outcomes for upcoming Raptors games!

November 7 @ Chicago Bulls

Happy Birthday Dalano Banton!

It’s obvious why Nick Nurse kept Banton on the bench during the first game against Chicago. He was saving Banton so that Rexdale’s finest could bust out in Chicago — on his birthday, no less!

The second game of this home-and-home series promises to be very different from the entertaining one that took place less than 24 hours prior. DeMar DeRozan probably won’t see the box-and-one again or be held to only 9 field goal attempts since Zach LaVine may return to the lineup. Gary Trent Jr. and Precious Achiuwa probably won’t play so poorly that they see less than 35 minutes of floor time combined. Christian Koloko probably won’t collect five blocks in one half again because... well... because... wait, why can’t he?

Fun facts that may only interest me

There’s a lot of overlap between the two teams sharing the court.

Thaddeus Young has played more games in a Bulls uniform than DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball combined.

Zach LaVine, Coby White, and Nikola Vucevic are the only Chicago players with more made threes than Otto Porter Jr. in a Bulls uniform.

DeRozan has played 675 games in a Raptors uniform. That’s 9 more games than Fred VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby combined.

Prediction

The good news (for me) about having a back-to-back against the same opponent falling perfectly between two different Rap-Up posts is that I have newer information to use for the second game. The bad news (for me) is that Nick Nurse is so damn unpredictable that a presumed loss — Zach LaVine likely return, Raptors’ 3rd game/city in 4 nights — is still not a guarantee. Do you seriously want to count out a coach who used 11 different coverages on Luka Doncic and resurrected box-and-one on DeMar DeRozan?

Toronto’s lost their last four in Chicago. The Raptors never cracked 105 in any of those losses while the Bulls never scored less than 111. Chicago splits the home-and-home with a 111-108 victory over the visiting Raptors.

November 9 vs Houston Rockets

At 1-8, it’s fair to assume the Rockets are a bad team. We knew they’d be in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes before the season and they’ve come out as the early “leaders.” They are, however, a team with NBA-calibre players, so it’s also fair to assume that there are a few areas where they excel.

The Rockets are good at crashing the offensive glass (4th in OREB%) but the Raptors are better (3rd in DREB%). The Rockets get to the rim at an above-average frequency (12th) and shoot a lot of non-corner threes (4th in non-corner threes). The Raptors are excellent at walling off at the rim (6th) and preventing non-corner three attempts (5th). The Rockets are 7th in points per transition play, but the Raptors are 1st in defensive points per transition play.

Houston, they have a problem.

Fun fact that may only interest me

It’s only his second season, but Alperen Sengun is already on the cusp of making history. Despite the mind-boggling decision to keep him out of the starting lineup for the first five games, Sengun is now entrenched as a starter and putting up solid numbers. He’s currently averaging 16.8 points and 9.9 rebounds.

At his current trajectory, Sengun could do something that other great NBA players from Turkey like Hedo Turkoglu, Omer Asik, and Mehmet Okur never did: finish the season averaging a double-double.

Prediction

The Raptors are going to feast on Houston’s propensity to turn the ball over (28th in turnovers) and cause flashbacks to recent transition-heavy wins over Atlanta and San Antonio. Don’t get me wrong. Jalen Green will have at least one jaw-dropping moment that reminds everyone of his elite athleticism. Kevin Porter Jr. will hit at least one back-breaking three at the end of the shot clock.

Even without Siakam to carve through their defense, this is the same Rockets team (minus Christian Wood) that Trent torched last year with 42 points. Gary might not light it up to that degree but his teammates should be able to pile up the steals and score willingly in transition. Toronto comes out victorious over Houston, 132-113.

November 11 @ Oklahoma City Thunder

I’ll apologize in advance if you’re looking for insights on Josh Giddey’s slow start, Lu Dort’s incredible defense, or a how-to guide in telling apart Jalen and Jaylin Williams, but this will be a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander appreciation segment.

SGA is a cheat code. How do I know this? All the talk about SGA’s brilliance is typically centered around his offense, and rightfully so. He leads the league in field goal attempts per game on drives and is widely considered one of the best finishers in the game. But have you noticed the strides he’s made on the defensive end?

Shai’s currently sitting in 7th in deflections per game at 3.9, which is more than VanVleet. He’s almost doubled his career average in steals (1.2) and is at 2.3. Add in his 1.1 blocks average and SGA is knocking on the door of elite greatness. Only two players have ever finished a season with at least 30 points, 2 steals, and 1 block: Michael Jordan (x 3) and Dwyane Wade.

Why am I speaking as if this is game number 80 instead of game number 12? The Thunder are 4-5, which is already halfway to Sam Presti’s ideal end-of-season win total. Expect SGA to sit out many games with mysterious injuries and shut him down before the calendar flips to 2023!

Fun fact that may only interest me

In 2016-17, Andrew Wiggins set a record for the highest scoring average by a Canadian, finishing with 23.6 points.

Since then, that average has been eclipsed twice (and likely thrice):

2020-21: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (23.7 points per game)

2021-22: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (24.5 points per game)

2022-23: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (30.5 points per game)

Prediction

The Thunder have a recipe for an upset in this matchup. Their transition defense is one of the best in the league, ranking first in transition opportunities allowed off steals and from live rebounds. As one of only two teams with a better turnover percentage than Toronto, the Thunder won’t give the Raptors many chances to get out on the break.

Shai has a lot of Luka in his game — both in the way they manipulate the game offensively while still finding crafty ways to score despite being double/triple-teamed. One major difference is that one of them was coached this Summer by Nick Nurse, thus, giving the Raptors Head Coach a little more insight into how to slow Shai down.

It would have been fun to see how Pascal Siakam would score on Dort, but I’m fine with watching how SGA fares against Vision 6’9. At the end of the day, one of these teams can box-and-one the others’ superstar, while the other team is content with losing and possibly welcoming TWO seven-foot generational stars next season. Toronto comes away victorious over Oklahoma City, 124-118.

November 12 @ Indiana Pacers

Tyrese Haliburton has been excellent this season. Full stop.

I’m starting to see why Myles Turner has always been in trade rumours but never actually traded: Kevin Pritchard is hoping to fleece another team the same way he did to Sacramento! Sure, Domantas Sabonis was a two-time All-Star in Indiana and probably the big man most would choose to keep instead of Turner, but Haliburton was already showing signs in Sacramento that he could reach even higher heights than Domas... and he is!

Hali is averaging 21.9 points, 9.3 assists, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.7 steals on 49.6/43.9/87.8 shooting. If he raises his shooting percentages a smidgen and joins the illustrious 50/40/90 club, he’d be the 7th to do so while scoring at least 20 and the 1st to do so while also tallying at least 8 assists.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Remember that stat above about the highest-scoring seasons by a Canadian? There have only been seven instances when a Canadian finished with at least 20 points per game. SGA x 2, Wiggins x 3, Jamal Murray, and RJ Barrett each did it once.

As noted above, SGA is well on his way to making that list for the third time. The really cool stat is not that Bennedict Mathurin would be the first Canadian rookie to make the list (20.7 points per game), he’s currently the only one to do so without starting a game!

Prediction

This has the makings of a scheduled loss for Toronto. They’ll be flying in from a late game in Oklahoma City while the Pacers would’ve had 2 days rest and wrapping up a four-game homestand.

Indiana is 7th in three-point frequency and nails those at an above-average rate. They’re 4th in three-pointers made and attempted. Toronto will be playing in its third city/game in four nights (where have I heard that before) and may not be able to scramble to contest threes as fast as they’d like. The Pacers’ 3rd-ranked transition offense will further keep the weary (and Spice-less) Raptors on their heels. Indiana pulls out a 112-105 victory over the Raptors.

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Last Week: 3-1

Season Record for Predictions: 7-3

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