Nick Nurse’s defining quality as a head coach is his willingness to try anything to win. Nurse was one of the first NBA coaches to fully adopt zone defenses in today’s game, going so far as to play box-and-one and triangle-and-two schemes in the NBA Finals last season against the Warriors. This season, Nurse’s tinkering helped the Raptors win at even more frequent rate without Kawhi Leonard on his way to being named NBA Coach of the Year.
With his team facing elimination in Game 6 against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, Nurse apparently had one more trick up his sleeve. The Celtics and Raptors were tied at 98 with under a minute to go in regulation when Nurse appeared to trick Boston star Jayson Tatum into a late-game turnover. Toronto would go on to win the game in double OT to force a Game 7 on Friday.
Tatum tried to kick out to the corner as he drove the lane with 45 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. There was only one problem: no Boston player was standing there. Instead, Tatum threw the pass almost directly to Nurse, who was positioned outside the coaches box where the sideline meets the baseline.
Here’s a look at the play:
Did Tatum just make a bad pass intended for Daniel Theis, or did Nurse actually fool him? Nurse’s gray shirt and the Celtics’ green uniforms probably don’t look all that dissimilar in the heat of the moment.
For his part, Tatum took responsibility for the play and absolved Nurse of any wrong doing. “I mean, I turned it over,” Tatum said. “That was my fault. Can’t blame Nick Nurse. He’s not playing. It was my fault.”
Teammate Jaylen Brown wasn’t so sure. “Grown men should be able to control themselves,” Brown said. “Especially the coaches and coaching staff.”
NBA rules call for a technical foul to be assessed to a head coach for leaving the coaches box, though that call is rarely made. Nurse pushed the limit so much that he probably deserved one, but the refs didn’t call it with a playoff series on the line.
Ultimately, the Celtics can’t really use this as an excuse for why they lost. Boston and Toronto each had plenty of chances to put away the game before Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry officially extended the Raptors’ season in double overtime. This was perhaps the very best game of the bubble so far, in large part because both head coaches are so sharp.
The margins are razor thin in this series. When every little advantage counts for so much, count on Nurse to find them.