Kyle Lowry had figured he’d seen it all from his offbeat, guitar-slinging coach.
But when the Raptors were sputtering against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors late in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, Nick Nurse suggested switching to an unorthodox defence more often seen in middle school — and one Lowry had certainly never played in his 13 seasons in the NBA.
The box-and-one defence, which Curry called “janky,” worked. The Raptors stifled the Warriors on seven of their final eight possessions. It also prompted a few laughs Tuesday at Oracle Arena.
“You can laugh at it, you could clown it . . . it’s just like playing zone,” Lowry said. “Nothing Nick does surprises me now on the court as a coach. It doesn’t surprise me. That one kind of caught me off guard, but yeah, it was innovative.
“Never practised that ever. I don’t think I’ve ever run a box-and-one in my life, I’m going to be honest with you.”
The defence helped Toronto climb out of 13-point deficit on Sunday, although the Raptors lost 109-104. The seven-game series is tied 1-1 heading into Wednesday’s Game 3.
WATCH | Steph Curry on Raptors’ unique defensive strategy:
A box-and-one is designed to stop one dynamic scorer, in this case Curry. The “one,” which was Fred VanVleet, sticks to Curry, while the other four defenders form a box, guarding a space on the floor in a zone defence.
When’s the last time Warriors coach Steve Kerr saw that defence?
“In ninth grade a team played one against me. Very proud to announce that. I had a box-and-one, just like Steph. So janky defences have been going on for a long time,” Kerr said with a chuckle. “What does ‘janky’ mean anyway? I’m not exactly sure.”
Curry said it’s southern North Carolina slang, that “I pulled out of my back pocket.”
Urban Dictionary defines it as “inferior quality” and “dilapidated.” Think of an old rundown car, or a well-worn pair of running shoes.
A Brazilian reporter fretted over the fact there’s no Portuguese translation for “janky.”
“Yeah, I know, everybody’s making fun of me for it, right?” Nurse said on his unorthodox defence.
The 51-year-old coach tossed the idea out during a timeout. He wanted to change up the game’s rhythm. The players were on board — after a crash course in box-and-one.
“They were like ‘Well, what does that look like?”‘ Nurse said. And so he drew it up.
“Literally he drew Fred [VanVleet] . . . he said to Fred ‘This is Steph, you have Steph,”‘ Lowry said. “He put me, Kawhi [Leonard], Pascal [Siakam] and Marc [Gasol] on the board in spots and said, ‘Stand there.”‘
WATCH | Nick Nurse: Raptors’ coach defends final play defence:
Bold move to go back to a rudimentary defence in the NBA Finals. What does that say about Nurse?
“I guess a guy that thinks outside the box,” Leonard. “He’s coached a lot of different levels, seen a lot of different games. . . he is experimental, and a lot of times what he draws up on the board works.”
In Nurse’s first season as an NBA head coach, he’s made news in these playoffs for some of his off-court quirks. He’s a big music buff, and photos have shown him departing the team plane with a guitar slung over his back. He’s been asked about the monogrammed “NN” Nike hat he always wears. But he’s steered clear of any talk of his baby boy born on the day of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
On the court, he’s the first former G League — or D League as it was known then — coach to guide a team in the NBA Finals. It took him 13 different teams over more than two decades to get here.
He was the D League coach of the year in 2011, and led both the Iowa Energy (in 2011) and Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013) to D League championships.
Nurse, who was hired by the Raptors in 2013 as an assistant to Dwane Casey, draws on his development league experience. Toronto had a revolving door of a roster in the regular season, due to trades, injuries, and Leonard’s load management. And Nurse said his years in the D League prepared him well.
“The biggest thing I always say is getting the head coaching experience,” Nurse said. “You’re trying to always as a coach develop chemistry, define roles, get guys to play their butts off. And in the D-League you have so much change in personnel, guys coming and going, that you end up having to do that probably much more than you would at this level or most levels.”
These Finals feature a record 16 players with G League experience, nine of them from Toronto: Siakam, who’s the favourite to win the NBA’s most improved player award this season, VanVleet, Danny Green, Canadian Chris Boucher, who was the G League MVP this past season with Raptors 905, Norm Powell, Patrick McCaw, Jeremy Lin, Malcolm Miller and Eric Moreland.
Nurse has fond memories of his D League years.
“Everybody that has been in the D-League is a little better off for it,” he said. “It’s a really great place and really great people. The players, they play hard. I really enjoyed my time there.”