'We've got to take it ourselves': Nick Nurse's journey to the NBA Finals

THERE HE IS, mouth agape on the sideline as the camera slowly zooms in on a prolonged expression of disbelief after Fred VanVleet is called for a three-second violation in Game 4 of the Toronto Raptors' first round against the Orlando Magic. There he is again, so animated in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals that he is totally oblivious to Drake applying a reassuring sideline mini-massage to his shoulders, igniting a controversy on the boundaries of celebrities and the proximity of fans to players and coaches.

Now watch him as the Raptors touch down in Milwaukee before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, descending from the team plane wearing Beats headphones and with a guitar strapped to his back like Bon Jovi on a world tour. We have discovered coach Nick Nurse through a prism of engaging postseason snippets.

And we haven't even discussed the buffalo plaid suits yet.

So, we wonder about this rookie head coach who has guided Toronto into the Finals, whose nomadic coaching journey included multiple stops in the British Basketball League, a duo of D League incarnations and a three-day stint as associate head coach at Iowa State that netted him hundreds of thousands of dollars (more on that later). The general consensus appears to be this dude is fun.

But you don't reach the NBA Finals just by being fun.

"Well, sure," responds Raptors guard Kyle Lowry. "Nick is very laid-back, very chill -- until you don't play hard."

No one was yukking it up when Nurse assembled his team in the film room the day after an embarrassing Game 1 loss to Orlando in the opening round of the playoffs. Nurse had been so jazzed the night before, he'd barely slept. He'd been ready.

Why weren't his players?

After forward Pascal Siakam bumped into Nurse before the session, he warned his teammates as he slid into his seat. "I could tell right away he was really upset," Siakam says. "You could see it in his face. Very tense. Unlike him. He was already riled up before he walked in."

Nurse, enraged by the subpar effort of a group that included veterans Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green, spliced together damning examples of Toronto's lackadaisical approach.

"I had 17 clips I was going to show," Nurse says. "I think I stopped at one. I thought they understood how hard we needed to play because it was the playoffs. Apparently, they didn't."

Nurse made it clear he would not tolerate that. He yelled so loud, and so long, that he lost his voice, his players report. His spittle spewed perilously close to the suddenly attentive -- and surprised -- NBA millionaires.

"It wasn't pretty," Nurse says now. "I don't do that very often. It was by far the biggest bullet I used."

"He lit a fire under us," Green says. "We needed it. Orlando prepared us for Philly, which prepared us for Milwaukee. He got us locked in."

And yet, five weeks later, there they were -- after trouncing the Magic in four straight and besting Philly's four-All-Star lineup -- down by 15 at home to the Bucks in Game 6, their inexperience revealing itself. It didn't help that Leonard had blanked on his first seven 3-point attempts. "I'm watching," confesses team president Masai Ujiri, "and I'm thinking, 'No way in hell we're winning this game.'"

With 5:47 remaining in the third and the score 65-52, Nurse called timeout. He reminded the Raptors that they had made up a deficit like this just days before. He implored them to relax. "He was very composed," reports Leonard, who also spoke in the huddle, encouraging teammates to embrace the moment.

Toronto roared back. The Raptors advanced.

"Nobody is giving us a thing," their coach declared. "We've got to take it ourselves."

NICK NURSE WAS born and raised in the city of Carroll, Iowa, some 90 miles northwest of Des Moines. He was the youngest of nine kids, with five older brothers, so competitive with them that it occasionally brought him to tears.

"At some point in your life, you try to self-reflect and ask yourself, 'Why do I want to win so bad?'" Nurse says. "Then you realize, in my house, if you [didn't] get up and start fighting in the morning, you [wouldn't] get any cereal -- or a bowl or a spoon."

When Nurse wasn't grappling for Grape-Nuts, he was absorbing blows from his older siblings in various athletic endeavors. They hardened him, and in 1985 he was the Des Moines Register Athlete of the Year, headed to Northern Iowa to play basketball, the guy who shouted "Follow me!" -- and everyone did.

"When I first took the job at Northern Iowa," explains his former coach Eldon Miller, "I called a team meeting. Five people showed up. Nick was one of them. I could quickly tell from that meeting that the four other guys looked to Nick to speak for them."

Nurse roomed with Greg McDermott, another Iowa boy. They became fast friends and snuck off in their free time to bet on the greyhounds or hustle guys on the golf course in two-ball tournaments.

The two helped lay the groundwork for a resurgence at Northern Iowa that culminated the year after they graduated in 1990 with its first NCAA appearance. Miller identified Nurse as the rare college player who didn't just learn the plays but actually took the time to understand why they made sense. McDermott recalls Nurse's precise shooting regimen, which never wavered. He graduated as the all-time leader in 3-point shooting percentage (.468) -- then plotted a way to stay in the game.

It came in the form of an overseas opportunity with the Derby Storm in the British Basketball League as player-coach. The team traveled to all its games in a creaky white van, but there was a problem: Nurse, at 23, wasn't old enough to secure the rental to take the wheel.

"I had to make my center Martin Ford drive," Nurse says. "He wasn't happy about it, either."

When he wasn't navigating the challenge of coaching players who were as many as eight years older, Nurse attempted to keep the van up and running. One evening after midnight, when it broke down on a deserted, winding road in the British countryside, Nurse took stock of his career choices.

"That was one of those moments that made you scratch your head," Nurse admits. "First of all, you're thinking, 'Where in the hell am I?' and second of all, 'What the hell am I doing here?'"

Regardless, in four years overseas, he compiled a 276-103 record. And during his travels, he came across a young Nigerian player who showed promise for Nurse's former team, the Derby Storm. His name: Masai Ujiri. "All I remember about Nick," Ujiri says, "was that he was really young and, if you listened to the people over there, really brilliant."

Nurse migrated back to the United States and, in 2007, landed a job in his beloved state of Iowa with the Iowa Energy D-League team. His old roommate McDermott was also climbing the coaching ranks, landing a job at Iowa State. Their mutual friends couldn't help but compare.

"I loved every job I had," Nurse says. "People asked me, 'Why aren't you doing something more important?' When I was doing well in the D-League, they were like, 'Why can't you get an NBA job? Or a college job?' I don't think people thought much of what I was doing. That's fine.

"I was learning. Not just X's and O's, but team dynamics."

One of the perks of the D-League was a chance for players to sign up for free continuing education. Nurse became the rare coach who cashed in, taking an online course from Michigan State on interpersonal communication and conflict management.

In 2010, after Nurse had netted a division title for the Iowa Energy, McDermott invited him to be his associate coach at Iowa State.

Nurse jumped at the chance and spent the next 24 hours in meetings and film sessions and booking trips overseas to recruit in England and Greece. The night before he left, he dined with McDermott in an Ames restaurant where the equipment manager showed up with his Iowa State swag -- sweatshirts, pants, polos and sneakers. "I told him, 'Throw it in my office; I'll get it when I come back,'" Nurse recalls.

Three days into his new job, after scouting two prospects in Manchester, England, Nurse got a call from McDermott. Creighton coach Dana Altman had accepted the job at Oregon, and McDermott had decided to replace Altman at Creighton, where his son Doug "Dougie McBuckets" McDermott would join him.

"Those guys from England? Tell 'em you're recruiting for Creighton now," McDermott informed him.

Nurse's head was spinning. Somehow, it didn't feel right. He canceled his trip to Athens, returned to Iowa and talked with Cyclones athletic director Jamie Pollard, who told Nurse that he had a candidate in mind to replace McDermott but that if that person didn't take the head-coaching job, Nurse would be considered for it.

"It was a wild 24 hours," Nurse says. "I had only been hired as the associate coach three days earlier, and now all the media is circling my house thinking I'm the guy."

He wasn't. Pollard tabbed Fred Hoiberg for the job, and suddenly, Nurse was unemployed. After an awkward negotiation, the school gave him a $175,000 buyout.

"He became the highest-paid state employee per day in Iowa history," McDermott says.

"Yeah," Nurse counters, "but I never got my gear."

NICK NURSE BELIEVES most things happen for a reason. Because the Iowa Energy hadn't found a replacement for him yet, he was able to return to his old job -- and lead them to a championship. He won another D-League title with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in 2013, and Dwane Casey hired him as a Raptors assistant on the strength of his offensive creativity.

"For the short time we were together at Iowa State," McDermott says, "we were running a bunch of different sets with a lot of counters to them. I showed them to Nick once, and I could see the wheels turning. Next thing I know, he's saying, 'How about if we move these two guys over here and invert the bigs ...'

"I had been running that stuff for eight to 10 years, and he's tweaking it in a way that I hadn't considered before."

When Ujiri fired Casey last spring, he interviewed a number of candidates, Mike Budenholzer among them. But something kept drawing him back to Nurse, who, in a five-hour second interview at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, unveiled his detailed vision for the Raptors, from training camp all the way through to the Finals.

Upon accepting the job, Nurse asked to coach the team's summer league squad. Ujiri warned him that the team was "crap," designed to get OG Anunoby some offensive reps and not much more. "We had no chance from day one," Ujiri says, "but Nick starts ramping these kids up. They're playing so hard, and by the end, he had me so excited about watching them."

And that, according to his players and coaching peers, is the definition of Nick Nurse: a coach with a supple approach to a game that is constantly changing, and an ability to relate to players of all shapes, sizes and bank accounts.

"He's willing to try different things," Siakam says. "A lot of coaches aren't.

"Last year, I wasn't handling the ball. This year, Nick made it a priority. I'm not sure a lot of other coaches would give me that freedom or that trust."

"He's very good at adapting," Gasol says of Nurse. "Some of the things he does are eye-popping. He showed me some rebounding techniques that were really interesting. It sounds simple when you say it, but they make a difference."

While those folks who wanted him to do something "important" are now finally satisfied, Nurse insists basketball is basketball, regardless of the level. Leonard and Lowry are more gifted than his boys from Derby Storm, "but it feels the same to me," Nurse insists. "You learn from all of them."

What we've learned from a pulsating Eastern Conference finals is that Nurse, the offensive innovator, turned the series on its ear with his defensive adjustments. The Bucks ended up scoring just 0.96 points per possession after a made basket in the series, well below their regular-season average of 1.11 (tied for ninth best in the regular season), and Giannis Antetokounmpo, an unstoppable force in the previous round against Boston, was stymied by a wall of Raptors defenders, beginning with the smaller Leonard, Lowry and Green, who absorbed the initial contact from the 7-footer.

"One thing Nick did was challenge us in terms of the physical play," Lowry says. "He made it clear, 'Listen, you have to be here to help. You can't be afraid to get hit.'"

And so it is that the Raptors enter the Finals as heavy underdogs against Golden State, but McDermott is certain that Nurse has conjured up some new wrinkles.

"Nick believes you should throw stuff against the wall and see if it sticks," McDermott says, "because if you aren't throwing anything against the wall, nothing sticks."

Safe to say the guitar-toting, meme-inducing, spittle-spewing coach of the Raptors has found some traction of own. Ujiri claims there's no one (besides Kawhi Leonard) he'd rather have on his side down 15 with the season on the line.

"I say that because Nick really believes," Ujiri says. "So, you believe, too."