Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr took a familiar road trip this weekend.
Kerr and the Warriors were in Toronto on Saturday on their first visit to Canada since the 2019 NBA Finals, where the Raptors prevailed in six games to win their first championship.
It would be a huge understatement to say that a lot has changed for both teams since this series.
With Pascal Siakam (as well as Dalano Banton) having been added to the league’s COVID-19 protocol before the whistleblower, Fred VanVleet was the only Raptor playing Saturday night who adapted to the 2019 Finals.
On the second straight night at the end of a five-game road trip, the Warriors sent nearly half of their roster straight home, in part as a precaution amid rising COVID-19 cases in Canada and across the United States.
Eight Warriors – including Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala – haven’t even made the trip to Canada, with just Kevon Looney representing the Warriors on the 2019 squad.
The Warriors currently sit in second place in the Western Conference with a 24-6 record, with Saturday’s game being their biggest margin of loss of the year. After missing the playoffs in each of the past two years, the Warriors currently have the second-best 2022 NBA title odds.
The match itself was as chaotic as one would expect with one of the teams essentially presenting their ‘B’ formation, with Toronto winning by a score of 119-110. Scotiabank Arena was operating at less than 50% capacity that evening, with a reported attendance of 7,988.
But amid all the chaos, one constant remains: Kerr’s duel with Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
Kerr was named NBA Coach of the Year in 2016, while Nurse received the honor in 2020, both retired from their first championships as head coaches.
“The way this league works, we’re all stealing from each other,” Kerr said when asked what he thought of Nurse’s coaching style. “I think Nick has been very influential in this league. The way the Raptors play defense, the way they look for deflections and the way they mentally think about passing lanes. They clearly have an identity and a style and this comes straight from a great coach.
In particular, Kerr shouted out the box-and-one defensive scheme Toronto used in the 2019 final, which he said “everyone is aware of” once Nurse started implementing it.
With four of the players on the field playing zone defense, the name of the box-and-one comes from the fifth playing man-on-man coverage on the team’s top offensive threat, most notably used by Fred VanVleet on Steph Curry during of the final. .
The box-and-one phrase has even made its way onto official Nurse merchandise.
This year, Nurse has been forced to experiment with several different starting lineups for the Raptors due to injuries and the team not having a single player listed above 6’9″.
“He’s just a very creative coach,” Kerr added. “You know, he’s been a coach for a long time and he’s been a coach at many different times. And he’s used that experience very well. So he’s not afraid to launch some crazy plans there.
Nurse was quick to praise Kerr, who is the league’s third-longest-serving starting coach, having won three titles with the Warriors.
“You don’t have that level of success unless you’re doing all phases of the game really well,” Nurse said of the Warriors. “They do a lot of what you would call model basketball. They really make sure to do it consistently. They really play with the beat consistently. The ball moves in attack [well].”
Kerr said the Finals were a “devastating series” for the Warriors due to injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
Durant, who tore his Achilles tendon, has since returned to MVP level with the Brooklyn Nets (before entering health and safety protocols himself this week). But Thompson has yet to return to NBA action after a torn ACL suffered in the Finals and his own Achilles injury while training in 2020.
“It seems so far away,” Kerr said. “It’s hard to believe Klay is still recovering from this.”
But the memories weren’t all bad for Kerr.
In particular, Kerr shouted out to Raptors fans before Game 1 of the Finals.
“It’s been a pretty incredible time here,” Kerr said. “I will always remember the national anthem… hearing all the fans stand up and sing the Canadian anthem. It’s just a beautiful moment.
“I always love coming back to Toronto,” Kerr said. “It’s one of the great cities in the world and coming to visit is fun and playing in this building is always fun. There is a love for the game here.