When Nick Nurse was an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors we were chatting casually on the court at Scotiabank Arena one day during the 2017-18 season about his ambitions to be an NBA head coach.
His star was rising as an assistant and he was beginning to get some buzz as a candidate for potential openings. That season he helped then Raptors head coach Dwane Casey implement a new offensive approach for the Raptors – a more modern one with an increased emphasis on threes, pace and ball movement. He was also the first point of contact for the ‘bench mob,’ the second unit that featured the likes of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet and which routinely ran teams off the floor playing a style that looks very familiar to Raptors fans now but seemed foreign compared to the Raptors more traditional isolation style that featured DeMar DeRozan and to a lesser extent Kyle Lowry.
The Raptors won 59 games that year and finished second in the NBA in offensive rating, four spots up from the season before. They led the league in bench scoring.
But one thing that I took away from that conversation was how confident Nurse was and how much he believed in himself, his coaching ability and the viability of how he wanted to coach. It wasn’t boastful or arrogant and it wasn’t any comment on how the Raptors were being coached at the time.
It was just that he knew he was good and would show out when the time came.
He was right.
Nurse was named NBA coach of the year on Saturday afternoon. He learned about the award on TNT’s pre-game show when his elderly high school coach, Wayne Chandlee surprised him with the announcement.
In my mind, he was the obvious choice for the award. There was no one – externally anyway – that believed the Raptors would be a championship contender after losing NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency, I pegged them as a 50-win team with a chance to earn a top-four seed in the East and that seemed generous. It was a nod to Nurse and the competitiveness and championship experience of the group.
Instead, the Raptors had a better winning percentage this year than last and a better record than the Los Angeles Clippers, where Leonard went in free agency. They were the second most successful team in the league. They lost an elite starter and one of the best players in the NBA and got better, somehow.
Viewed through the prism of two years of spectacular success – Nurse is one of nine first-year head coaches to win an NBA title as a rookie and his .721 winning percentage is the best in NBA history – our conversation takes on a different light.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” I recall Nurse saying, though I’m paraphrasing. “When I get my chance, I won’t coach scared.”
Nurse knew. None of this is a surprise to him. He’s a modest person and completely aware he stepped into a dream job, and that he’s not winning anything if Kyle Lowry isn’t Kyle Lowry and the Raptors front office doesn’t’ turn the 27th overall pick into Pascal Siakam or is able to find Fred VanVleet under a seat cushion, but Nurse knew he could coach, and when he got a chance he’d coach his ass off.
“I think that my training gave me a chance to try a lot of different things,” Nurse said Saturday when I asked him about our conversation and his ability to coach fearlessly on the game’s brightest stage. “I guess when I finally did make it to the NBA as an assistant and kinda saw some things, I thought if I ever got a chance to become a head coach, a lot of the things that I tried in some of those back-water places I thought maybe would still work.”
It took him a while to get his chance, in the sense that after the Raptors were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round in 2018 – the third straight time they failed to scale Mount LeBron – and they fired then NBA coach-of-the-year Casey, they didn’t instantly hand the keys to Nurse. There was a five-week pause and it was widely thought the Raptors first choice was the more experienced Mike Budenholzer, who ended up taking Milwaukee Bucks job and was named coach of the year last season.
But when he did get the job in June of 2018, Nurse was true to his word. There was no opportunity to learn on the fly or feel things out. He was taking over a 59-win team that had fired a well-respected long-term incumbent who had just won coach-of-the-year, and then traded a franchise icon – DeRozan – to go all-in on one year with Leonard.
It was not the time to be shy or timid or to be slowed by self-doubt.
“I think I knew what the job was when I got it,” Nurse said. “The number of wins in the regular season has become pretty much irrelevant. It was gonna be a building process to see if we could advance in the post-season and, from Day 1, that was the message.
“Now, that’s not always easy to do because the pressure to win each and every night in this league is real, as you know. So, we were trying to build a little bit and we were always trying to focus on playing our best in the playoffs because, rightly or wrongly, that’s how our organization was being judged at the moment.”
The Raptors have passed judgement and have the championship rings to prove it. Nurse got that job done. But it’s how he’s helped turn this version of the Raptors – a team without a player taken in the draft lottery and without a player who has ever finished in the top-five of the league MVP voting into a legitimate threat to repeat is why Nurse has earned league-wide recognition. Last season was impressive, but this year Nurse backed it up by implementing what is perhaps the NBA’s most versatile and intelligent defensive approach, the bookend to the offensive flair he became known for in the first place.
What’s so cool is that Nurse honed his craft for decades in places where people didn’t watch and now that everyone’s watching, he doesn’t care.
He’ll roll out a box-and-1 in the NBA Finals and regularly plays triangle-and-two – another zone/man hybrid most common in high school basketball when a team is trying to stop one-star player but thought to be impossible in the NBA, where every player is a star. He’ll full-court press like a frantic grade school team and drop back to a stodgy, basic 2-3 zone like he’s coaching men’s league.
He’ll wear his personalized Nike hat with his ‘NN’ initials on it and get up on stage with the Arkells to flash his fairly basic guitar skills and he’ll do Zoom calls with a hoodie with a ‘Box-and-1’ logo.
Nurse is going to do him.
Those who work with him have come to appreciate it. VanVleet has put in more time with Nurse than almost anyone – all those extra practice hours fine-tuning the bench mob — and is one of the NBA’s smartest, wisest players, even in his fourth season In the other life, before the pandemic, the Raptors needed to beat the Detroit Pistons and Dwane Casey in order to guaranteed Nurse would be the head coach at the All-Star game. They did it and they did it for Nurse and his staff.
“Coaches don’t really get a lot of credit in this league,” said VanVleet afterwards. “They definitely do a good job putting us in good positions. They’re flexible, they listen to us, and with as little amount of practice time that we have, it’s very important that we have good communication, trust and I think that’s something that’s been building for the last year and a half. Even when we lose and we play bad, we pretty much know exactly what it is; we’re never searching for answers and that’s something you like to hang your hat on.”
Nurse didn’t know he was getting the award when he was summoned to appear on TNT’s Saturday afternoon, a Raptors off day – “I was kinda surprised today with the whole presentation thing. I really had no idea that it was here today and haven’t given it much thought, to be honest … I kept kinda wrestling with JQ [Raptors media relations director Jennifer Quinn] about what do they wanna talk to me about, what are they gonna ask me?”.
But after learning about the award in a cameo from his high school coach it was Lowry and VanVleet who presented him with the trophy, smiles and hugs all around. It was a warm moment and one Lowry would never participate in if he didn’t believe it was deserved.
Chances are Nurse wouldn’t’ be here at all if Lowry hadn’t come to appreciate what he could deliver. That’s the way the league works. Game knows game, and Lowry — as smart and savvy a player as exists in the NBA — knows good coaching. It’s the ultimate compliment.
Livestream the Raptors’ quest to defend their NBA title with select NBA playoff games on Sportsnet NOW.
The award is another step in a simply remarkable journey for a good but not great mid-major point guard from small-town Iowa who couldn’t let go of the game even if the game was ready to let go of him after he finished playing college basketball.
Nobody really wants to coach; they want to play. But when your playing career ends you want to stay close to it.
“I just loved being around a team and trying to get guys to dream about success and help lead them there,” was how Nurse explained how he got into coaching as a 23-year-old, first a player-coach in the backwaters of the British Basketball League and then as a head coach and Grandview Community College in Iowa and then back in the BBL.
He’s a lifer at 53, but he had a crossroads in his mid-20s. After returning to England to coach full-time his team was 8-8 and things didn’t look too promising. The money, after all, sucked. He made up a list of four things he could do other than coaching. Running a community recreation centre was one idea. Selling real estate was another. He had an accounting degree but that was his drop-dead option, and he can’t remember the other one.
“We were 8-8 and I went back to my hotel thinking maybe I should pack up and go home,” he said. “I wrote down four other things I thought I might like doing and they all looked like absolute [expletive] to me, so I figured I better get working on coaching and figure it out.”
He stuck with it. His BBL club got on a roll and won the title and Nurse won his first coach of the year award there. There were more. He went on to win another title and coach of the year in the G-League and now an NBA ring and another coaching award, the big one.
Nurse seems to have figured it out. The Raptors are fortunate he did.
Khudobin proves resilient on road to Stanley Cup Final as Stars goalie – NHL.com
Now, after playing for 13 professional teams in five leagues and three countries over the past 14 seasons, Khudobin finds himself in the Stanley Cup Final with the Dallas Stars, three wins from his first championship.
“When I was growing up, I was thinking it was my dream to play in NHL. I didn’t think that deep, to go and win the Stanley Cup,” the Stars goalie said Friday. “When I got here, I realized it’s not easy to get there, not easy to get to the Final. So, then I start thinking it would be a great accomplishment to get there at some point and win the Cup.”
[RELATED: Complete Stanley Cup Final coverage]
The Stars lead the best-of-7 Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning after a 4-1 win in Game 1 on Saturday. Game 2 is Monday at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the Cup Final (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
After being a backup his entire NHL career, the 34-year-old is in a starring role this postseason. With No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop unfit to play for most of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Stars turned to Khudobin, who is 13-6 with a 2.54 goals-against average, .923 save percentage and one shutout in 20 games (19 starts) in the postseason. He was the difference in their Game 1 win, stopping 35 of 36 shots, including all 22 he faced in the third period. He is now 9-0 with a .934 save percentage in the last nine games in which he faced at least 30 shots.
It was certainly a long road from Kazakhstan to the Stanley Cup Final, but Khudobin has left his mark at his many stops, remembered as much for his big personality as his work in goal.
“This guy belongs on [“Late Night with David Letterman”], he belongs on all the shows,” former Dallas Stars goalie and current president of the Stars Foundation Marty Turco said on the NHL @TheRink podcast Wednesday. “He’s such a great interview. That doesn’t make a great goalie, but he’s also a consummate professional and fun and funny. He works so darn hard, he really does, and he’s been on [short-term] deals his whole career.”
Khudobin was selected by the Minnesota Wild in the seventh round (No. 206) of the 2004 NHL Draft. He was then chosen by Saskatoon of the Western Hockey League in the first round (No. 51) of the 2005 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft and played 44 games during the 2005-06 season, going 23-13-3 with a 2.90 GAA, .917 save percentage and four shutouts. Former Saskatoon coach Lorne Molleken said Khudobin was a popular addition on and off the ice.
“He went to school to take English classes, and the people who were picking him up and taking him to school every day, there were times they would pick him up in a limousine to take him to school, drop him off and bring him home,” said Molleken, now director of coach development at Prairie Hockey Academy in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
“He was a lot of fun and he was a great competitor. The first game he played for us was an exhibition game against Medicine Hat (2-1 shootout loss). He faced about 70 shots that night, because we played the whole third period basically facing a 5-on-3. That was his welcome to the Western Hockey League.”
To ease Khudobin’s transition to North America, Molleken arranged for him to live with a billet family, Anna and David Gersher, natives of Moldova, part of the USSR until 1991, who have lived in Canada for more than 30 years.
“He was sure of himself, I could tell that,” Anna said of her first meeting with Khudobin. “People tell me that goalies are like that, they’re always sure of themselves, and he was quite sure of himself. But he spoke only Russian, so we had very interesting conversations. He would come from games, or from meetings with the team, and he would ask me, ‘What did they mean when they said, this or this?’ So I had to figure out what they said first, and then what they mean. My husband and I only had girls, so with the boys, it was a different twist. But he had fun.”
The Gershers also supported Khudobin on tough days. David Gersher remembered Khudobin’s disappointment after Saskatoon lost 4-3 in triple overtime to Medicine Hat in Game 2 of the 2006 WHL Eastern Conference Semifinal, when Khudobin saved 80 of 84 shots.
“I told him, ‘Listen, not every day is going to be rain. There will be sun, too. Just keep going, do your thing,'” David said. “And here [he is], playing for the Stanley Cup. He put a lot of effort in himself and that’s why he’s where he is today.”
After one season with Saskatoon, Khudobin played with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Russian Superleague in 2006-07 before returning to North America. He largely played in the minor leagues the next four seasons, with Houston and Providence in the American Hockey League, and Texas and Florida in the ECHL.
He played six games (four starts) for the Wild from 2010-11 before they traded him to the Boston Bruins on Feb. 28, 2011. Stars player development coordinator Rich Peverley, Khudobin’s teammate in Boston from 2011-13, said the young goalie, a Black Ace in the 2011 playoffs when Boston won the Stanley Cup, learned a valuable lesson with the Bruins.
“He changed his approach on nutrition, and I remember the next year he came back and was in phenomenal shape,” said Peverley, who became close with Khudobin and regularly played cards with him. “When you’re around [defenseman Zdeno] Chara and [forward Patrice] Bergeron and knowing the way they ate, then you’re a Black Ace and you see this and think, ‘OK, I’m in the AHL, what can I do to get to the NHL?’ Anton took that advice and transformed his game. Two years later, he was our backup and he was outstanding for us. Just like in Dallas, with him going in, you knew he was going to help you when you were going to battle.”
Khudobin said he benefitted both from watching the Bruins’ 2011 run and being the backup to Tuukka Rask when they lost the 2013 Stanley Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
“I was learning from the practices, how they were preparing for the games,” he said Friday. “That was an unbelievable experience. It was a time to realize how hard it is to get here, how hard it is to win the Cup.”
Khudobin left the Bruins as an unrestricted free agent and signed a one-year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes on July 5, 2013 and then a two-year contract March 4, 2014. He was 27-31-7 with a 2.50 GAA, .914 save percentage and 11 shutouts in 70 games (66 starts) over two seasons with the Hurricanes.
Former Carolina goaltending coach David Marcoux said Khudobin was always competitive, be it playing Marcoux in Ping-Pong — “I didn’t have too many wins against him,” Marcoux said — or wanting more starts with the Hurricanes.
“He would be very vocal, even around Cam Ward, who was the No. 1 goalie for forever in Carolina, in terms of, ‘Why don’t I play more Dave? When am I going to play more?’ This is facing myself and Cam Ward,” said Marcoux, who now runs a goaltending school in Calgary. “[Ward] and I would look at each other and say, ‘Well, this is kind of awkward.’ He’s a guy who you knew when he was around the room because you could hear him. He’s not a quiet backup, never seeing himself as a simple backup. Back a few years ago, you had No. 1 goalies and you had backups, and he kind of bucked that trend.”
Marcoux said most of his work with Khudobin in Carolina focused on improved communication with teammates and puck-handling skills around the trapezoid area.
“You can’t win a Stanley Cup because of your puck-handling skills but you can lose a Stanley Cup because of your puck-handling skills. To do less sometimes, you can accomplish more,” Marcoux said. “That aspect of his game was not something that was very used prior to him coming to Carolina, and I think we did a very good job at improving his puck-handling skills but at the same time improving his communication skills and reading the forecheck coming at him when he’s behind the net.”
Khudobin was traded to the Anaheim Ducks on June 27, 2015 and then returned to the Bruins to again back up Rask, signing a two-year contract as a UFA on July 1, 2016. He then signed another two-year contract, this time with the Stars, on July 1, 2018.
“I wish it was a five-year-deal now, it would’ve been nice,” Stars general manager Jim Nill said Tuesday. “But good for Anton. He’s earned this right and I hope we can get him back because he’s a big part of our team, as we’ve witnessed. As far as his personality, it’s infectious. He fits into any room, he’s a battler and he never gives up.”
Khudobin played an NHL career-high 41 games (37 starts) with the Stars in 2018-19. He was 16-8-4 with a 2.22 GAA and .930 save percentage in 30 games (26 starts) this season.
Stars forward Tyler Seguin, Khudobin’s teammate with the Bruins from 2011-13, said the goalie reminds him of Tim Thomas, who helped the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011 and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in those playoffs.
“[Khudobin] has always been that goalie in practice that you don’t like shooting on, because you’re not going to score much,” Seguin said. “He has the experience from seeing all that, from us being together in that organization. There’s a lot to learn from that organization. They’re winners, they’ve been to the Final so many times. We were a part of that a couple of times, so [Khudobin has] got that experience. He’s coming into his own. He’s competitive, he works hard and he gets the job done.”
Khudobin also has that big personality. After the Stars defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in overtime in Game 5 to win the Western Conference Final on Sept. 14, Khudobin put a large, Stars-branded necklace on and screamed, “We’re not going home!” After a 4-2 win against the Nashville Predators at the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, Khudobin did a running slide into the team picture, landing on his right side and holding his left leg in the air.
Turco (5-foot-11, 184 pounds) also likes that Khudobin (5-11, 195) is “bringing back the shorter goalies.”
“He’s got some quick feet. I’d like to see us in our primes together, who’s quicker,” Turco said. “He’s pretty stocky, super strong and really flexible. We’ve seen him do multiple splits. He battles for the ground he needs to have. I want him to flip his hand over and move the puck more efficiently, but I think I lost that fight a while ago. He’s an old dog, but his game doesn’t have too many flaws and holes. Once in a while, like we all do, you can’t see the puck and you retreat a little bit. It’s a subconscious thing that happens. Otherwise, he’s out there battling.”
He’s battled his way to going 99-76-25 with a 2.46 GAA, .919 save percentage and eight shutouts in 218 NHL games, largely as a backup. And now as the starter, he is battling to win his first Stanley Cup championship, which would be the first for the Stars since a six-game victory against the Buffalo Sabres in 1999.
“[Khudobin’s] time in now, and you just never know how long your career is going to keep up,” Marcoux said. “At 34, you don’t need a rocket scientist to know the down slope is near. But he’s in extremely good shape. He’s an undersized goalie by NHL standards, but in terms of belief, he’s an oversized goalie.”
Watch: Frustrated Danny Lee 6-putts from 4 feet then withdraws from U.S. Open – Golf Channel
Danny Lee withdrew after a third-round 78 at the 120th U.S. Open, citing a wrist injury. But it wasn’t a pained shot from Winged Foot’s luscious rough that appeared to be the catalyst for the WD.
Lee was 3 over par for the round, facing a 4-foot par putt on the par-4 18th to finish the day. He missed that on the left side and then missed the comebacker for bogey. Lee then frustratingly ping-ponged his ball from one side of the hole to the other before eventually six-putting and making an quintuple-bogey 9.
Lee signed for his 78 and then called it a championship.
Lee withdraws from U.S. Open after 18th hole meltdown – Yahoo Canada Sports
(Reuters) – New Zealand golfer Danny Lee withdrew from the U.S. Open citing a wrist injury after a disastrous finish to his third round on Saturday left him 13 strokes behind leader Matthew Wolff.
Lee fired rounds of 70 and 75 to make the cut at an unforgiving Winged Foot but carded an eight-over par 78 in the third round as his campaign unravelled spectacularly.
Lee was three over heading into the par-four 18th but six-putted from four feet to sign off with a quintuple bogey nine.
The 30-year-old missed putts from four feet, five feet, five feet, six feet and three feet before finally holing from seven feet and announcing his withdrawal shortly after.
(Reporting by Arvind Sriram in Bengaluru; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)
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