Raptors’ Norman Powell embracing bench role with dramatic results

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Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell reacts toward the Atlanta Hawks bench after scoring, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Atlanta. (John Amis/AP)

ATLANTA – Norman Powell is finally having his moment. He’s stacking them up, actually.

The athletic Toronto Raptors shooting guard added another signature outing to the growing pile in Atlanta on Monday afternoon, rescuing what should have been an easy win that the Raptors almost let slip away.

Powell took charge, popping off for 27 points and knocking down six triples on nine attempts, with five three-pointers coming in the second half against the lowly Hawks.

That stood out because Raptors not named Powell were 2-of-23 from deep in the first half, a big reason why Toronto trailed the 10-34 Hawks after 24 minutes.

Powell wasn’t having it.

“Nobody could make a shot and he made some and it was simple as that,” said Fred VanVleet. “That gave us the separation that we needed.”

Powell was the difference in the Raptors’ 122-117 win, and not for the first time this season.

His play of late even begs the question — with the NBA’s Feb. 6 trade deadline approaching — is Powell someone the Raptors should consider untouchable?

It’s a remarkable thought given that ever since he signed his four-year, $42-million contract extension — he has another year guaranteed and a player option on it for the 2021-22 season remaining — it’s always been assumed his contract would have to be included in any significant deal. For a long time, it’s been assumed his position was one the Raptors would try to upgrade.

It would be hard to upgrade on Powell the way he’s playing, let’s just say that.

The Raptors flamethrower scored 24 points in the second half — eight in the third quarter and 17 more in the fourth. His signature play might have been when he found himself isolated on former Raptors icon Vince Carter that put the Raptors up 16 with 6:20 to play on their way to a 21-point lead with 4:30 to go. The only blemish was that after Powell finally cooled off the Hawks began pressing, the Raptors began turning it over and a 24-5 run saw the Raptors lead dwindle to two with 14 seconds left before VanVleet iced it at the free-throw line.

But the ending shouldn’t take away from the primary storyline: Powell, who at various times has been the player most difficult to get a handle on over the course of his five-year career. With stretches of inconsistency or injury-interrupted by flashes of brilliance, ‘Playoff Norm’ – shorthand for Powell’s proven ability to turn playoff series on a dime — is playing the best basketball of his life.

Others might think he’s on fire, but Powell claims that it’s just his years of work coming to fruition. He’s at his level.

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“You’re just taking the same shots you’ve been taking,” the 26-year-old said. “I have confidence in my game. I have confidence in my shot. I’m taking my shots when I’m getting to my spots and living with the results. I’ve said that many times. Just live with the results, let your instincts take over and just play.”

Since returning from a shoulder injury five games ago, Powell has averaged 22.8 points a game on 48 per cent shooting from deep and 61.4 per cent from the field overall — and he was on fire before missing 11 games when he partially dislocated his shoulder in mid-December.

“He’s getting his feet down. You can tell they’re like practice shots for him, the same as when he and [Raptors assistant coach] Patrick Mutombo workout every day,” said VanVleet. “The same way he practices is what it looks like in the game and he’s been shooting at a great clip so hopefully he can keep it up.”

To call it a hot streak is somewhat of a disservice. He started the season a little slow but has been rolling ever since.

Since Nov. 8 he’s averaging 18.2 points a game in just 30 minutes of floor time. He’s second in the NBA in three-point percentage over the same stretch among those with at least two makes a game, at 44.6. His True Shooting percentage of 66.6 is third in the league.

It’s just that now he seems to be building up to some kind of crescendo.

Powell is always measured in interviews, comfortable on relying on a safe script, so he’s not one to provide too many insights about what’s different this year as compared to other seasons. It’s fair to wonder if he might have had some version of this season in him last year, but had to take a step back when Toronto acquired Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, which made the wing position a little crowded.

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Powell had high hopes of starting for the Raptors out of training camp but head coach Nick Nurse ended up going with VanVleet, though injuries have allowed Powell to make his fair share of starts. Now with everyone healthy, it looks like Powell is slated as the Raptors’ designated scorer off the bench and someone who has finished games when required.

Given how Powell has played it could be understood if he felt like he was getting the short end of the stick, but he’s never indicated otherwise and instead is throwing himself into his current role with dramatic results.

“I love the role. I’ve had high expectations for myself,” he said after notching at least 20 points for the eighth time in nine games. “I set high goals and I try to go after that. It feels good that my coaches have confidence in me, my teammates have confidence in me to be able to go play basketball. This is what I’ve always wanted. I’ve tried to take the opportunity and try to succeed in that and help the team in that.”

The way Powell is playing makes it easy to keep bringing him off the bench. At the very least the freedom to roam offensively seems to suit him.

“I have no idea what he wants,” said VanVleet. “I know he likes to shoot, so I think he’s finding his niche there. And I think that we have both been pretty good and mature about knowing the opportunity, I think, if I could speak for him, a little bit, that would be the number one thing. He’s getting the opportunity, regardless of who starts and that’s what’s most important and he’s shown what he can do with it.”

According to VanVleet, any notion that Powell might be a starter — something that was discussed in training camp, that Powell announced he wanted to do and which Nurse even suggested was on the table the game before he got hurt after Powell had filled in so well when Kyle Lowry and then VanVleet were injured – has never been a discussion between them.

“I think you guys made that up. I don’t think that was ever a question about who was going to be starting, no matter how good he played,” said VanVleet. “I’m being honest I think that was something people outside of our locker room made up, it was never a conversation for us. Regardless of which way it would have gone, it would have been fine either way. I think it’s working out and he’s been playing his butt off.”

He has. Starting. Coming off the bench. It hasn’t mattered. It’s ‘Playoff Norm’ everyday and the Raptors are lucky to have him.

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