NBA championships and playoff series are won by the stars. But each and every champion in the league’s history has been aided by key and timely contributions from lesser-heralded role players.
When it comes to finding a reserve player who will step up and be that ‘X-factor’ for the Toronto Raptors this spring there are some strong options. Fred VanVleet, the backup point guard who can open up games with his quarterbacking and three-point shooting, comes to mind. Ditto Serge Ibaka, who has been great all season and seems to be settling in nicely to his likely continued role coming off the bench. Pascal Siakam, a previous candidate, is no longer on this list, given it’s now expected that he’ll dominate long stretches of games en route to a likely Most Improved Player award.
But how about Norman Powell?
Your answer would have likely swung wildly throughout the season, yet following another strong outing, scoring 23 points in 21 minutes on a perfect 7-7 shooting (including 4-4 from beyond the arc), he’s looking like as good an option as any to provide a significant boost off the bench once the post-season tips off this weekend.
Yes, Powell has come a long way in a relatively short span.
With his precise role on the team under first-year head coach Nick Nurse up in the air, the fourth-year wing struggled out of the gate, averaging just five points and 14 minutes per game during the Raptors’ first 11 games.
The team wasn’t too concerned. After all, they had gone 10-1 in that span and looked every bit the part of a NBA Finals contender, something that, seven months later, hasn’t really changed.
But Powell was hurt after 11 games with a shoulder injury suffered just 13 seconds into his first shift in an early November game in Utah against the Jazz. By the time he was ready to return to action he was something of an odd man out.
Although he was given minutes, Powell struggled with his shot, hitting just 23 per cent of his three-point attempts over his first eight games back. After a roller coaster young career in Toronto, he was falling back onto old habits and forcing his way through games while looking to re-establish himself as the key contributor he proved to be during the 2016 playoffs in his rookie year, when he played crunch-time minutes against the Indiana Pacers, guarded Paul George, and was heroic down the stretch on both ends of the floor.
“I’ve been here for four years now, in a mixed variety of situations and scenarios — good and bad,” Powell told me back in December, following his first game back from the shoulder injury. “I’ve played really great being just thrown in there and asked to play off of guys. I’ve been in scenarios where I was a go-to-guy because of injuries; I’ve been in situations where I was trying to force things and make things happen because my game wasn’t going the way I want.”
It was, ironically, a game against Indiana back in January that helped turn Powell’s 2018-19 season around. In a 16-point Raptors victory, Powell was 10-13 from the floor and a perfect 3-3 from deep as he scored a season-high 23 points.
As the season has wound down, Powell’s game has steadily risen. Apart from providing physical defence, he’s become a fairly reliable contributor on the other end of the floor and is as confident shooting the three as we’ve ever seen from him in a Raptors uniform.
Over his past 20 games, Powell is shooting a whopping 49.2 per cent from beyond the arc and has reached double-digit scoring in 11 of those contests.
Given his aggressiveness and penchant for coming up with notable plays in important games, when you factor in his killer shooting of late, Powell figures to play a significant role off the bench in the playoffs — a notion his head coach acknowledged on Sunday.
“Norm’s going to be involved for sure,” Nurse said after the Raptors’ overtime win against Miami.
“He can be the sixth guy one night, the ninth guy one night, and the seventh guy another night. He’s an athlete,” the coach continued, “so he can make some high-level, high-energy plays. He’s really believing in his shooting, so he’s going to take them… and then every now and then he’ll break free, or get a cut or something, and go down the lane for a big slam dunk. He can make big plays in big games.”
Powell credits his offensive turnaround to the Raptors’ style of play and emphasis on ball movement.
“It’s really easy for me now to just go out there and play, not think about anything, let things come to me, and just play within the offence,” he told me. “The offence is going to create a bunch of opportunities for me and the team. While the ball is moving, and we’re moving around, the ball is going to find you.”
When that happened on Sunday, Powell made the most of it:
“There’s no need to rush and think ‘I have to do something now,’” Powell says. “The ball is going to come find you, and when it does, you take those shots. And you live with the results.”
With just one game left in the regular season, and the Raptors’ most critical post-season in franchise history merely days away, the results are speaking for themselves.