SIMMONS: The unspoken mistrust between Dwane Casey and Nick Nurse

SIMMONS: The unspoken mistrust between Dwane Casey and Nick Nurse
Dwane Casey returns to Toronto free of Raptors high expectations
Former Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has settled in. Hes found a home with the Detroit Pistons.

His kids are happily ensconced at one of the most prestigious private schools in the United States. It was recommended to him by none other than one of its wealthiest graduates – Steve Ballmer, the former chief executive of Microsoft and Los Angeles Clippers owner – and Pistons legend Isiah Thomas.

“They’re big and strong … Right now, you’re usually only seeing one (big) at a time,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We’ve got to be ready for the physicality and their strengths. They’re going to guard, they’re going to play hard and they’re going to be physical. And we’ve got to be ready to at least match up.”

Emotions will run high when Casey makes his return to Toronto

Casey and his wife Brenda have been battling the renovation dust at their new home in one of Detroits lushest suburbs. Hes figured out the best route to work at Little Caesars Arena, brand new just last year and the centerpiece of a revitalized downtown.

“They’re big and strong … Right now, you’re usually only seeing one (big) at a time,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We’ve got to be ready for the physicality and their strengths. They’re going to guard, they’re going to play hard and they’re going to be physical. And we’ve got to be ready to at least match up.”

And on the first and 15th of every month for the next five years the 61-year-old will be drawing the biggest pay days of his career – his bi-monthly share of his five-year, $35-million contract to coach the Pistons.

“I would love nothing more, honestly,” Pistons guard Reggie Jackson told the Detroit News about the importance of a victory over the Raptors. “This one would be special if we could get a win for him. He’s not going to say anything about it and we probably won’t talk about it, but guys will have it in the back of their minds.”

Caseys post-Raptors transition has gone very well, which likely mitigates the awkwardness those around the Raptors might feel after pushing out the franchises most successful coach after their most successful (regular) season, just weeks before he was named the NBAs coach of the year. That Casey neglected to mention Raptors president Masai Ujiri in his acceptance speech was noted. 

“I would love nothing more, honestly,” Pistons guard Reggie Jackson told the Detroit News about the importance of a victory over the Raptors. “This one would be special if we could get a win for him. He’s not going to say anything about it and we probably won’t talk about it, but guys will have it in the back of their minds.”

Watch the Raptors Tape: Dwane Casey, gentleman and smasher of clipboards

And make no mistake, there is some awkwardness, even in the absence of any publicly acknowledged animosity between Ujiri and Casey, or between Casey and his former assistant Nick Nurse, who was on the bench with him for five playoff seasons and got the job after Casey was let go.

Out of the gates: Toronto trailed at the half for just a fourth time this season, by a score of 66-61. It was the most points the Raptors have allowed in any half this year, thanks in large part to Torontos paltry defence allowing the Pelicans, who consistently beat the home team down the court, to shoot 58 per cent from the field. Four players finished the half with 10 or more points, led by Moores tally of 17. The Raptors starting backcourt didnt do much to help counter that, either: Kyle Lowry and Danny Green combined for just two points in the first 24 minutes, going 0-for-6 from the field. The pair finished the night with seven points, though Lowry did put up a team-high 11 assists. Coming back late: There were moments in the second half when it looked like Torontos bench, which outscored the Pelicans bench 42-20, might just claw their team back into the game. Arguably the loudest roar of the night came at the 11-minute mark in the fourth quarter after a Delon Wright steal lead to a pump fake from Jonas Valanciunas and an open three for Fred VanVleet, bringing the Raptors within six points. But New Orleans held its composure and, after head coach Alvin Gentry called a timeout, went on a 6-0 run that put them back in the drivers seat.

Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey watches play during the first half of the teams NBA preseason basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, in San Antonio. Casey woke up Monday morning thinking about the Toronto Raptors. But the coach said if there was any trepidation about Wednesdays return to Toronto, it was more about facing the leagues best team, and less about being back in the place from which hed been unceremoniously punted six months ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP /Darren Abate

The designation as Raptors ambassador was one DeRozan took immense pride in. He helped shift the conversation about the culture of basketball in Toronto, even as he couldn’t get the franchise past the LeBron James roadblock in the Eastern Conference. DeRozan has always been outspoken about his loyalty to Toronto. He famously bypassed meeting with his hometown Lakers or any other team when his free agency arrived two summers ago. “I am Toronto,” he declared after re-signing with the Raptors. He wanted to achieve things in the city that no other player had accomplished. He wanted to see his jersey in the rafters.

TORONTO — Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas spent a dozen years between them developing under coach Dwane Casey. Valanciunas had never played for any other NBA head coach before this season.

When the Raps made the deal that sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio along with Jakob Poeltl to get Leonard, the risk factor from a Toronto standpoint was that while DeRozan had years to go on a long-term contract, Leonard might bolt as a free agent at the end of the season. In other words, the Raptors might only get one season out of him after giving up so much. If they won the championship, sure, it would still be worth it, but trading for a superstar and then watching him walk would deal a devastating blow to the franchise from which it would take years to recover.

When they welcome Casey and his Detroit Pistons back to Toronto on Wednesday, the two longest-serving current Raptors know emotions will be running high. But theyll roll up the red carpet once the ball gets tossed up.

He was hungry, so he went to get something to eat at a Jack in the Box. In the parking lot, he got the call telling him he had just been traded to San Antonio. “It just caught me off guard,” he says. “I sat in the Jack in the Box parking lot for, like, two hours just trying to process it all, like just trying to process the whole thing, and it just tripped me out honestly, just trying to figure it out, but that’s how I found out. Midnight, sitting in the Jack in the Box parking lot for about two hours till I went home.”

"Its going to be different, but hey, Im still gonna try to take his head off, the teams head off," Lowry said with a laugh.

The 12-2 Raptors face Detroit (6-6) for the first time since Casey was fired days after Toronto was jettisoned from the post-season by Cleveland for the third consecutive season.

Casey will always have a special place in my heart, not least because of his heartfelt goodbye to Toronto and the rumour that he took the Detroit job partially because it allowed him to keep his family here so his children could finish school in an environment of tolerance.

Lowry became a four-time NBA all-star under Caseys watch, while Valanciunas has grown into a multi-skilled big man. Casey had kind words for both Raptors in a phone interview a day earlier, saying he was proud of their growth.

Well start the tape right after Deebo and Serge have been run for complaining about a non-call when Carmelo Anthony arm-barred Pascal Siakam, preventing him from reaching an inbound pass.

Lowry — who got off to a rocky start with Casey when the Raptors acquired the temperamental guard in 2012 — and Valanciunas returned the compliment on Tuesday.

Dwane Casey, one of the finest men the sporting scene in Toronto has ever known, is coming back. Hell, Ill say it more strongly: Dwane Casey is coming home.

"(Our relationship) changed a lot," Lowry said. "It went from a guy who kind of wasnt trusting in what I did, and me not trusting in what he wanted, and kind of us battling back and forth, to him being like Hey listen, I believe in what you can do, you show me what you can do, and me saying All right if you show me that and Ive showed you what I can do, Ill listen to you more and well have a good relationship.

A hectic back and forth that features a Holiday airball and a Lowry turnover, ends with a Moore triple. Leonard attempts to match Moore and comes up empty. Holiday knifes around Lowry for a jumper, he’s been able to stick Lowry to his hip so far. Lowry on the other hand can’t get past Holiday’s hips. Holiday gets Green on the next possession and walks him into the lane for an and-1. Holiday is really strong and the Raptors guards are having fits trying to contend with him on drives. Leonard and Lowry play a bit of give and go near the basket, and Leonard converts, it’s 15-11, Pelicans.

"It turned into a great coach-player relationship. And him having young kids, and me having … they played soccer together, so we created a bond off the court also."

Siakam catches the ball, and surveys the court. He notices that Randle’s feet are allowing for a spin to his right hand. Siakam’s web shooters activate, and the web slings over and sticks to the legs of Jamaal Magloire. Finally we know why he’s employed by the Raptors. Siakam pulls on the web and creates a great deal of momentum, Randle has never seen someone spin with this speed. Somewhere in the distance, J. Jonah Jameson yells: “He’s a thief! A criminal!” in the background. Before he knows it, Siakam is at the rim for a finish.

Valanciunas has "big respect" for the coach who gave him his start, and hopes the Scotiabank Arena fans give the 61-year-old coach a warm welcome on Wednesday.

"He did some really good things for the city, for the team. I think everybody respects him," said the Lithuanian centre. "(But) as a business weve got to move on and he (ended) up pretty well, so that is life. Sometimes were separating."

Nick Nurse, who was promoted to head coach after Caseys dismissal, insisted he was "looking forward" to seeing his former boss. Rumours had surfaced in the off-season that there was little love lost between the two.

Nobody is talking nearly enough about Kyle Lowry and the season he’s having. He’s not necessarily approaching the game much differently than last season, and the difference seems to be that he’s surrounded by shot-makers on a much more spaced out floor. A lot of lip service had been paid to being a run ‘n gun team over the years, but this time around there appears to be talent to match the will, along with the right tactical approach. He’s averaging 11 assists which is 4.1 more than last season, and well above his previous career high of 7.4 in 2013-14. This isn’t just a player who decided he needed to average more assists, but a player who has found that the context around him has changed to match his natural passing ability. Sometimes I wonder how many assists Lowry would average if Patrick Patterson knew how to shoot.

But if theres any truth to reports the two hadnt spoken since the firing, Nurse wasnt biting Tuesday.

I’m glad the Jimmy Butler trade happened because it adds some weight to the Eastern conference and makes coming out of the East that much more meaningful for whoever team does get to the Finals. Watching Philly/Charlotte and Clippers/Bucks the other night, it’s the Bucks that worry me more. Leaving aside that Giannis is a threat to dunk the ball no matter where he catches it on the floor, their big men have the ability to stretch us more than Philly. Brook Lopez is dropping bombs and guys like Ilyasova have always been thorns in our side. If getting to playoff maturity is a road, Philly is just starting on it while the Bucks, having gathered valuable experience the last few years, are halfway through it. Ultimately, though, I believe it’ll boil down to defense and of the three, the Raptors are the better defensive team.

"My communication with whoever is between me and whoever Im communicating with, whether its between Kyle and me and Kawhi (Leonard) and me or Case and me. . . or whoever," Nurse said with a stern look. "Ill keep that to myself. I am looking forward to seeing him."

I am liking the religious attention to minutes management being paid to Kawhi Leonard. The acknowledgement that the regular season is a means and not the end, even if it comes at the expense of disappointing many fans, is the right one. We’ve been long complaining about Lowry being overplayed, not enough attention being paid to minor injuries which eventually balloon into playoff problems, so even if it’s a tough pill to swallow on some nights, it’s easily the right move. The same should also be extended to Kyle Lowry, which may have a side benefit of bringing another guy into form – Delon Wright. Of Anunoby, Siakam, and Wright, he’s the furthest “behind” and some extended minutes would help, even if it’s in stretches here and there.

"We have five years together and a lot of success. A lot of battles and a lot of long hours together, working hard," Nurse said. "He took a team from relative obscurity or the hinterlands to relevance, and that may be the hardest thing to do in this league. Im glad I was a part of it for five years. We had a lot of success and I learned a lot from the guy and have a lot of respect for the guy."

The 51-year-old Nurse said the biggest lesson learned under Casey was professionalism and diligence.

“Im proud of him also, the growth that hes had, and the all-pro season hes having so far,” Casey said. “Kyle made me a better coach, as far as learning to give and give in and listen and see different ways to skin a cat. I think vice-versa too. Hes been a great leader for that organization and hes done a great job in his time there, and a lot of us owe him a lot for what hes done for that program.”

"The seriousness of the day-to-day, the grind and probably most importantly is the work ethic," Nurse said. "He used to say it to us a lot. Hed put his work ethic up against anybody in the league and he was right in that. The guy always had a our staff prepared and our players prepared, he taught me all those things."

"He did watch a lot, man. Im not quite sure how he did it, to be honest with you," Nurse said. "I dont think I watch as much as he did, and I dont think I did while he was here, either. I used to say When Im awake my laptop is up and rolling, right? But that maybe isnt quite true. But he was very diligent with his preparation."