Kuemper Catholic graduate and Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse begin the most important playoff run in franchise history Saturday, April 13. Nurse led the Raptors to a 58-24 record and the Eastern Conference second seed. 
BRANDON HURLEY | TIMES HERALD
Kuemper Catholic graduate and Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse begin the most important playoff run in franchise history Saturday, April 13. Nurse led the Raptors to a 58-24 record and the Eastern Conference second seed. BRANDON HURLEY | TIMES HERALD

The pressure is on and the real work begins Saturday.

 

Carroll native and first year Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse wrapped up a magnificent regular season Tuesday, all but essentially meeting sky high expectations in the process. The Raptors locked into the Eastern Conference second seed with the second best record in the league at 58-24, guaranteeing home court advantage in the opening two rounds and in the Finals, only conceding home court to Milwaukee if they meet in the conference finals.

 

But no one is ever remembered for how they perform in the regular season, championships define elite-level greatness.

 

The red-hot Raptors embark on their path to potential glory this weekend, led by Nurse, a Kuemper Catholic and UNI legend himself, a man who has worked all his life to reach this point. Success is all he’s ever known, and there’s sure to be a lot of it in the next few months. 

While he won’t get much, if any, consideration for coach of the year honors, Nurse has done a magnificent job with the Raptors in his rookie year. Granted, the team added pieces in the offseason and throughout the year, bringing in superstar Kawhi Leonard and veteran Marc Gasol in addition to sharp-shooting Danny Green, but the obstacles and road blocks have been plentiful.

 

Let’s be frank, meeting expectations is never easy, especially in such a high profile position, top dawg of the only NBA team in Canada, a franchise that’s anxiously awaiting the next step.

 

Nurse has masterfully dealt with the pressures of first year NBA head coach. Not only that, but he, so far, successfully replaced the franchise’s winningest coach, Dwane Casey, who was fired after the best regular season in team history. The Raptors are poised for a deep run only a year after Casey, who first brought Nurse to the Raptors, led Toronto to its highest win total ever and the first No. 1 seed in franchise history, ultimately leading to Coach of the Year honors.

 

Those factors, in itself, are hard to handle and cope with, but Nurse has thrived, leading the Raptors to the second seed and 58 wins (58-24), a game shy of tying Casey’s record a year ago. Not only that, but Toronto was just a few games back from the Milwaukee Bucks, the Eastern Conference’s top seed, owners of the best record in the entire NBA.

“It played out really perfect,” Nurse said in a postgame press conference April 9 following the Raptors win over Minnesota in the season finale. “I didn’t want to chase anything, but in the back of our minds, we knew we needed to get home court against anybody in the West. Coming into (April 9), we knew one more would do it. We weren’t going to go crazy about it, and if some team got hot and beat us, so be it. But it played out the way we wanted it to.”

 

Not only has Nurse took incredible expectations in stride, but he’s battled through a number of injuries, a mid-season trade in which he had to roll in a new piece, in addition to delicately nurturing Leonard’s ego and “load management.” Leonard, the team’s best player and one of the top five athletes in the league, played just 60 of 82 games, sitting out 22 games for “rest.” That should, theoretically, derail even the best teams, impacting team chemistry and devastating the talent level. But it didn’t, Nurse kept his guys chugging along. At one point this season, Nurse had produced more than 15 starting lineups. There’s not another top team in the league that went through the same scenarios, and continued to win. 

As we turn our attention to the playoffs, boy, does Nurse ever have quite the opportunity in front of him, a real good chance to make history in front of a worldwide audience.

 

This absolutely IS the year.

 

The Raptors franchise, still in search of their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, was all in months ago, and has only added fuel to the fire. They made the trades – acquiring superstar Kawhi Leonard in the offseason and veteran Marc Gasol in a blockbuster deadline move – while also appointing, and simultaneously stating their confidence in Nurse, entrusting him to lead a championship starved franchise into the promised land.

Let’s not make any mistake about it – the 2019 playoffs are by far, the most important in franchise history. Nurse has been building for this his entire career, navigating the various channels to reach this point. 

 

And the Raptors, hear me out, have a legitimate chance at pushing Golden State in the NBA Finals.

Nurse has the team – as well as the experience and intelligence – to reach the pinnacle. Toronto isn’t a fluke, they are built for the playoffs. Leonard’s defense and his sheer playmaking ability is a rare combination, sprinkle in Pascal Siakam’s breakout season in addition to more than steady contributions from Kyle Lowry, Green and Serge Ibaka, and you’ve got quite the lineup. Gasol’s defense, offensive awareness and floor spacing adds another wrinkle off the bench, in addition to Fred VanVleet’s sizable leap in play to go with Norman Powell’s late season surge. That’s before you get to Jeremy Lin and his polarizing ability and Toronto has, in my opinion, the deepest team in the Eastern Conference.

 

Nurse’s 30 years of coaching throughout the world has prepared him for this moment. His track record speaks for itself, multiple championships in Europe and the NBA’s developmental league. Naturally, the next step is historic success on the brightest stage.

Buckle up, Carroll residents and fellow Iowans, you’re in for one hell of a ride this summer.