TORONTO — The spiral bound, customized scouting reports were waiting for the Toronto Raptors on their dressing room chairs as soon as they stepped off the court Sunday night. On the front cover: their team’s logo near the top opposite the Miami Heat’s, with "EASTERN CONFERENCE 2ND ROUND" in big letters printed across the bottom, and each player’s last name in smaller type at the bottom right corner. The books had to be at least 75 pages each. And by the time you read this, Norman Powell will have already been through it.
"I’m going to start working right away," Powell said after the Raptors’ Game 7 triumph over the Indiana Pacers, looking down at his copy of the book. "I’m wondering what my matchups are."
Powell just finished his first-ever NBA playoff round, one where he ran the gauntlet of usage from seeing just three minutes of floor time in the series’ third game to being a crucial guard against Pacers star Paul George in Game 5 when he played 28 minutes.
It’s no exaggeration to say the Raptors don’t win Game 7 without Powell, who went 5-for-6 in his 23 minutes, scoring 13 points — second to only DeMar DeRozan, who scored 17 more points on 26 more shots.
Powell hit important, lead-extending shots in the first half and then provided much-needed energy on defence in the second, when Raptors head coach Dwane Casey wanted a big-bodied ball-handler on the floor while DeMarre Carroll was busy trying to contain George.
"That young man is earning his keep right now," Casey said. "He’s doing a heck of a job."
In the fourth quarter Casey was even drawing up plays for Powell out of timeouts, like the one with a little more than eight minutes left in the game that set up Powell for an open three right in front of the Pacers bench. He drilled the shot to give his team a 14-point lead and ran back up the court with his arms extended out at his sides before promptly stripping George of the ball at the top of the key, gathering it up and sending the Raptors back the other way.
Powell scored double digits in three of the seven games, but guarding George was perhaps his most important contribution to the series victory, as he helped contain the Pacers star who was the best player on the floor in each game. After Game 7, George pulled Powell aside on the court as red, white and black shirts jumped up and down around them, and told the Raptors guard he respected his effort.
"I was in that position as a rookie," George says. "I had to guard the best player in the game at the time: Derrick Rose. So I gave him a couple words."
When Powell got back to the Raptors locker room, DeRozan was waiting for him with a similar message.
"That man has a hell of a heart," DeRozan says. "For a rookie to go in there and play big time — we couldn’t be more proud to see the things he’s doing out there on the court."
"It doesn’t matter who he’s playing against or where he’s playing at," Raptors guard Kyle Lowry added. "He’s going to be physical, always touching, always keeping a hand on his guy. We just fed off the energy of Norm."
That energy extends off the court, where Powell is one of the most diligent Raptors when it comes to self-analysis. After Toronto’s loss in Game 6, he watched every single one of his shots from that game and the one prior — he went a combined 0-for-8 from beyond the arc in those two contests — over and over. He called Toronto assistant coach Jama Mahlalela late that night to tell him he would be getting to the Raptors practice facility early the next day to work on his long-range shot.
"After that, my shot felt really pure. It was great; it was smooth. I worked out the kinks," Powell said, after hitting three of his four three-point attempts in Game 7. "So, in this game I was just telling myself to shoot it with confidence and shoot it the way I was shooting it in practice."
Powell says that if anything, his first taste of professional playoff basketball taught him he has to work even harder.
"In this series I learned how intense it is. Every possession really counts. You’ve got to really focus and lock on the details," Powell says. "The teams know everything. They know your plays. They know your tendencies. You’ve got to be able to trick them and catch them off guard with the details of the game. You have to outsmart them, outthink them."
And you know Powell’s already working on that, as he dives into that long scouting report that was waiting for him when he got back to the dressing room after Game 7.
In the Raptors’ second-round series against Miami, Powell might be matched up against Dwyane Wade, who he guarded when the Raptors played the Heat earlier this season. Powell grew up idolizing Wade, and says he tried to model his game after the Heat guard who’s been to a dozen all-star games since breaking into the NBA in 2003, when Powell was 10 years old.
"He’s so crafty. He’s so good in the post. He’s good off the dribble. His mid-range pull-up is on an elite level," Powell says. "I just have to focus on finding ways I can make things difficult for him."