Norman Powell shines for Raptors when they needed him most

Norman Powell spoke post game after the Toronto Raptors beat the Indiana Pacers.

TORONTO — 7-2. The numbers were scrawled on the white board in the visitors’ locker room at Scotiabank Arena. That was the Raptors’ record without Kawhi Leonard this season heading into Sunday’s game versus the Indiana Pacers.

“They’re still a good team without him,” Pacers star Victor Oladipo said before tip-off, motioning toward the board. “7-2.”

Leonard sat out the second game of the Raptors’ back-to-back after dropping 30 points in Toronto’s big road win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night, and things didn’t get any easier for Toronto. The Pacers entered the arena riding a six-game win streak and sat just a game and a half back of Toronto in the standings.

But, needless to say, even with Leonard sidelined, they weren’t taking the Raptors lightly — and, as it turned out, for good reason as the Raptors blew out a talented Pacers team 121-105 to bring their record to 30-12.

“They’re really talented top to bottom,” says Indiana forward Doug McDermott, “and obviously adding Kyle Lowry back, an all-star, makes up for [Leonard] not playing.”

Lowry made his return after missing nine of his last 10 games and had a solid night with 12 points, eight rebounds, and three steals.

But with the Raptors’ point guard easing his way back to action after dealing with a tricky back injury and a bench that hasn’t exactly been the most reliable over the last month or so, Toronto needed a big night from the supporting cast.

Enter: Norman Powell.

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The 25-year-old has been on quite the roller coaster ride with the Raptors since the team acquired him in a draft-night trade four years ago. From G-League standout to surprise playoff contributor as a rookie — and whose breakout came against a Pacer team with just one remaining player from the team that took the floor on Sunday night in injured big man Myles Turner — to potential sixth man, occasional starter, and, more recently, an odd man out.

Following something of a disappearing act last season — a worrisome development for a Raptors organization that had just inked the former UCLA standout to a four-year, $42 million deal — Powell was on his way to earning consistent minutes in Nick Nurse’s rotation this season, but a shoulder injury suffered against Utah in early November cost him 21 games.

He returned to the Raptors roster at a time when the team needed a sparkplug like him — especially one who can create problems for opponents on either end of the floor — given the struggles of rotation players like C.J. Miles, and the fact that the team hasn’t been shy about resting Leonard when deemed necessary.

Powell has strung a few nice games together in the eight games since his return but hadn’t exactly made a statement. Until Sunday, that is.

After a two-point outing the previous night, a motivated Powell scored a team-high and personal season-high 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting — including 3-for-3 from deep — in just under 32 minutes of action.

In the first half, Powell helped the Raptors maintain their first sizeable lead, turning defence into offence.

On the next possession, Powell crossed McDermott up and hit a step-back three to put the Raptors up by seven, and remained aggressive throughout the game as Toronto’s lead grew.

The Raptors have been trying to embrace the “next man up” mentality as they maintain a winning record while dealing with a rash of injuries throughout the season. Dealing with fluctuating minutes and roles isn’t easy for most players, but on this team, it’s a necessary ingredient to their regular-season success.

McDermott, a collegiate superstar and 2014 lottery pick, is no stranger to dealing with the ups and downs of being a rotation player in the NBA.

“When someone goes down it allows you to be more aggressive,” says McDermott. “But you always have to be ready, because you’re just an injury away from you having to play extended minutes. So you have to stay confident. Your time is always coming — that’s the mindset. I’m sure that’s what guys like Norman Powell are going through when they have to be the next man up. There’s definitely an emotional factor to it,” he adds.

In a sense, that’s exactly what Powell is trying to avoid. When Leonard returns to the floor, his minutes will surely drop again. Whereas in earlier points of his career, that would in some way lead to Powell forcing the issue with his play, a common problem among part-time players of feeling the need to do a lot in a little amount of time, he’s confident his experience will help avoid that this time around.

“I’ve been here for four years now, in a mixed variety of situations and scenarios — good and bad,” Powell told Sportsnet the day after he made his return from 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.”

But here, at the halfway point of the Raptors’ season, he maintains that that he’s finding it easier to strike that delicate balance between aggression and control and let the game come to him under the Toronto’s offence this season.

Whether it’s natural maturation, a player playing with plenty of motivation after a disappointing 2017-18 campaign, or truly the bi-product of the system, his current approach worked wonders on Sunday.

“There’s no need to rush and think ‘I have to do something now,’” he says. “The ball is going to come find you, and when it does, you take those shots. And you live with the results.”

For one night at least, the results spoke for themselves.

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