TORONTO — Norman Powell’s pretty sure his head coach meant this as a compliment.
“He played like an old man,” Dwane Casey said when asked about Powell’s role in the Toronto Raptors’ 104-96 victory over the Atlanta Hawks Thursday night. And for an explanation of what that means exactly, we’ll turn it over to Powell himself.
“Coach Casey loves the old references,” the rookie says with a laugh. “He loves how basketball was played back in the day, with toughness and energy and enthusiasm and being physical. And I think that’s what I brought to the game today.”
Powell drew the seventh start of his young NBA career Thursday night, tasked with bringing some life to the Raptors’ struggling defence and keeping Kyle Korver, one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters, in check.
The last time the Raptors played Atlanta, Korver scored 12 points and went 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. It’s not like he burned the Raptors that night, but Casey still wanted to shut the Hawks’ best deep threat down. So he turned to Powell to not only harass Korver around the floor but to try and spark his team’s early-game defensive effort as well.
“It means a lot. That’s been my game for a while—playing defence and bringing energy,” Powell says. “That’s me. When you bring energy you’re going to find yourself in the right spots. And Korver’s one of the top three-point shooters in the league. So I wanted to keep him frustrated and not let him get to his spots. And hopefully get our guys motivated.”
Once Powell found out his assignment for Thursday night, he got to work. He read the scouting report his coaching staff had prepared for him, and sat down with his coaches to devise a game plan to use against Korver, focusing on maintaining contact with the guard’s body, running him off the three-point line, and not letting him set up comfortably for shots.
A little more than an hour before tip-off, Powell sat in his stall in the Raptors' locker room and watched film of Atlanta’s most recent game—a win over the Utah Jazz two nights prior—paying particular attention to where Korver likes to shoot from and the slight tells in his body language that indicate he’s about to let one go.
“That’s one thing about me—I love the game so much and I’m a student of it,” Powell says. “I thought I was really prepared for this game.”
Of course, where things get tricky is trying to fit a matchup-specific plan like the one Powell devised for Korver into the Raptors’ greater defensive strategy, which often calls for double teams. This became especially challenging when Korver would set up in the weak corner while a pick-and-roll was occurring at the top of the key. In those instances Powell had to make a split-second decision between sticking to Korver or helping defend the pick-and-roll.
“It’s tough. Because you’re trying to stop him but then you also have to be on help side, so you don’t want to overcommit,” Powell says. “So, it’s all about finding a balance. But the guys are really helping me with talking to me on the floor and keeping me in tune to what’s going on.”
By his own admission, Powell had a few defensive lapses early on while trying to keep Korver contained, but none of them showed up on the stat sheet. Korver hit just two of his six attempts on the night, and only one of his trio of three-point attempts.
“And that wasn’t on Norm. That was in transition on a scramble play,” Casey says. “Norm was physical, he was gritty, he was grinding, he paid attention to detail, he didn’t fall asleep. I’m really proud of the way he competed. He’s growing as a player each and every time he walks on the floor.”