The relationship between Indiana Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren and Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse started long before their two seasons coaching together in Toronto.
Dating all the way back to 1993, Bjorkgren played under Nurse when he was an assistant coach at the University of South Dakota. It wasn't until 14 years later that the two again linked up when Nurse hired Bjorkgren as an unpaid assistant with the D-League Iowa Energy.
They would eventually go their separate ways as coaches in the D-League, followed by different paths to beginning their coaching careers in the NBA but when Nurse took over as head coach of the Raptors in 2018, Bjorkgren was quickly added to his staff as an assistant coach.
You know how that story goes: Nurse - with Bjorkgren as his right-hand-man on his coaching staff - would lead Toronto to its first-ever NBA championship in his very first season at the helm. In Year 2, despite losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency, the Raptors would make another inspired run in the NBA Playoffs but would eventually come up short losing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Bjorkgren's contributions to Toronto's success did not go unnoticed, being hired as the newest head coach of the Pacers.
"I'm very happy for him, he's a great person and a great coach. We've done a lot of basketball together side by side, so he definitely deserves the job. The Pacers got a good one in Bjorkgren," Nurse told ESPN's The Jump after the hiring.
Bjorkgren and Nurse will go head-to-head for the first time as head coaches at the NBA level when the Pacers and Raptors face off in back-to-back meetings on Sunday and Monday.
While Indiana's roster may look familiar to last year's - and you'd assume it's a similar team to the previous Pacers teams that have qualified for the playoffs in five consecutive seasons which resulted in five first-round playoff exits - this is a different brand of basketball under Bjorkgren.
Indiana's new head coach has the team's offence clicking at a higher level than any of their previous five playoff runs, ranking in the top-10 in the league with an offensive rating of 111.5. It all starts with All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis and floor general Malcolm Brogdon, both of whom are enjoying career-years under Bjorkgren so far.
But what is the new head coach doing differently to drive that success?
It all starts with putting the ball in Sabonis' hands and letting him operate. The one-time All-Star's usage rate is higher than ever before and according to NBA stats, his 105.1 touches per game is the highest average in the NBA. That's nearly four more touches per game than Denver Nuggets MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. It's well-established that the Nuggets' entire offence is run through Jokic, painting the picture of just how involved Sabonis is in Bjorkgren's new and improved offence.
Sabonis isn't just catching the ball on the block and powering his way to the rim. Sometimes he's bringing up the ball, running the offence as a point forward. Other times, he's getting touches out on the perimeter and at the elbows, giving the savvy big man space to dissect the defence, make the right reads and choose whether to attack or pass to his teammates cutting around him.
See for yourself as he goes through a couple reads here before finding Brogdon on a handoff for a 3-pointer:
The Pacers are running everything through their two best players and it's working. Brogdon is right up there with Sabonis in average touches, ranking fifth in the NBA and third for guards with 93.6 per game. The two-man game has been hard to stop because they're both multifaceted in that they can score and pass, keeping opposing defences guessing.
The defence has to honour that Brogdon can score from all three levels while keeping in mind that finding Sabonis is still his No. 1 option. If they're too caught up on what the trusty point guard is going to do, they'll lose sight of the All-Star forward who can pop out to the perimeter, dive to the rim for easy buckets or even make an extra pass out of a short roll if the defence is paying too much attention to the duo.
It didn't take long for Indiana's best players to put their trust in Bjorkgren, either. Just three games into the season after Sabonis hit a game-winning layup against the Boston Celtics, he called his new head coach a "genius" for his play call on the winning possession.
NO ANSWERS FOR @DSABONIS11 💪- Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) December 28, 2020
Game-winning bucket ✅ pic.twitter.com/GNJJVfGaMq
Brogdon doubled down on that, praising Bjorkgren in his postgame media availability.
"It takes a high-IQ coach and a patient coach to draw something like that up there," Brogdon stated. "You're getting Domas to his strong hand on the left side of the rim to finish, but at the same time, coach had been seeing them switch that the entire game and he saved it for the literally the last play."
A few games later, after a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, Brogdon continued that praise for his new coach.
"I'm going to continue to say that during the season and make sure people understand how well-coached we are. How he puts everybody in position to play their game and show their strengths."
According to Spotrac, the Pacers have have the sixth-most man-games lost to injury in the NBA with a running list of key players like T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Myles Turner and even newly acquired Caris LeVert all missing games due to various ailments. Despite that, Indiana is still 9-6, good for second place in the Eastern Conference.
Coach Bjorkgren got a taste of the "next man up" mantra last season when the Raptors had the fifth-most man-games lost to injury in the league, yet still finished as the No. 2 seed in the East. The Pacers are playing with that same passion, intensity and won't-quit attitude that we're so accustomed to seeing in Toronto and it's no coincidence or surprise that Bjorkgren has already established that culture in Indiana in just 15 games.
It may have a similar feel to the Pacers of the recent past but this Indiana team is quickly crafting itself to be the threat the Raptors have been in the East over the last few seasons under head coach Nate Bjorkgren.
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