TORONTO – Before the Toronto Raptors played the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, Kyle Lowry, who had been out for 11 games with a thumb injury, made the call himself that he was ready to return to action that evening.
This was excellent news for the Raptors. They were getting their starting point guard and, arguably, still their most important player back from a lengthy absence and, regardless of the rust he showed Tuesday, the team will be better because of it.
But with Lowry returning and slotting right back into his starting spot that meant a sacrifice had to be made. And the person who felt the squeeze was Norman Powell.
During Lowry’s 11-game absence, Powell was given the opportunity to start and made the most of his shot, averaging 15.8 points and shooting 41.4 per cent from three-point range on a little over five attempts per game.
This run marked among the most consistent stretches by Powell, as being inserted into the starting lineup seemed to level off his usual feast-or-famine performance that’s he’s shown over the course of his NBA career.
However, with Lowry’s return, Powell was always going to be the guy relegated to the bench because, as head coach Nick Nurse made it known, that’s his position on this team.
“I just kind of told him, ‘Norm, great, great job filling in, but this, in reality, is your role. Your role is more an off-the-bench guy for this team. So let’s go kick some butt in this role and start getting used to it and let’s just do that,’” Nurse said after the Raptors practised Wednesday afternoon.
This isn’t an easy thing to hear, to be told plainly that your job is to come off the bench, but Powell seems to have taken the message with no issue.
“He understood. I think he understood,” said Nurse of how Powell responded to Nurse’s frankness.
“There’s a closeness between he, Kyle and Fred (VanVleet). There’s a respect there. They’ve been through a lot of wars together. I think he understands and, thank goodness for the sake of the chemistry of our team, he accepts it.”
There was no sulking to be found from Powell on Tuesday night as he appeared to keep the momentum he had built up in the 11 games he previously played as a starter, scoring 23 points on 8-for-14 shooting and 4-of-8 mark from deep. That included 13 points in the fourth quarter alone and a corner three that put the Raptors up a point with 43 seconds left to play in a game they shouldn’t have had much business being in.
“I was proud of him for doing that last night, and he was huge,” said Nurse of Powell accepting his return to the bench.
“He led the comeback, really, I thought.”
Tuesday night’s performance was a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from the Raptors, but Powell’s strong showing was a definite plus, and came with a lot of optimism for how this team might be able to reach another gear moving forward with Powell not showing any drop in his level of play.
“I feel comfortable in whatever role,” said Powell. “…You’ve seen the different roles I’ve been able to play and I’ve been successful in, but I feel like this year there’s definitely an increased opportunity, definitely more minutes I’ve been playing. I feel like this is the most minutes I’ve been playing to date, so you get a better feel with that. But other than that, everything else has been the same, no matter what role they put me in I try to go out there to the best of my abilities and play to help the team win.”
This comfort level appears to stem from the confidence he’s built in the gym.
“My confidence never changes,” said Powell.
“My confidence comes from the work that I put in. I trust that I put enough work in and I continue to work, and I continue to grind and increase my skill set and my craft, and try to be the best basketball player I can be. That’s where my confidence comes from.”
Having confidence in one’s own work and ability is one thing, putting it into practice and coming up with tangible results is something else altogether. Powell has struggled historically with the latter, but it looks like things could finally be turning a corner.
“We said something about you can’t have a good one every one out of four (games), and I said we were trying change that ratio a little bit,” said Nurse of Powell finding consistency. “It seems like he’s been pretty good about three out of four, three out of five, maybe. You’re just trying to keep carving those, the being a total non-factor…”
This is standard Powell needs to try to live up for the rest of the season, particularly as a guy whose primary role now is to be a sixth man.
Like Lowry returning from injury, if Powell can attain the level of consistency Nurse wants him to reach off the bench, the Raptors will be better because of it.