PORTLAND – You have to have an exceptional amount of self-belief to go from being the 46th player taken in the NBA draft – in part because you were judged a poor shooter – to becoming one of the best long-range gunners in the world, and on your way to earning $150 million in what could very well end up being a career that runs 15 years.
His is very much a fairy tale story except for that the magic wand is hours upon lonely hours in gyms building skill when no one was watching.
Powell wanted to stay a Raptor. He’s happy with the Portland Trail Blazers but, when asked him about how everything went down that ended up with him getting dealt after six years in Toronto, he said this:
“I think you get to see the business side of it. I've seen the politics and stuff in basketball early on which has helped me navigate,” he said. “You know, how things work behind the scenes that that people don't really get to see. But I think it's good for me to experience something new and find a way to manage it and deal with it. I think I've done a great job of handling it.”
A storybook night would have been Powell leading his new team to the win.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
The Trail Blazers pulled way for the 118-113 win with a 20-7 run to start the fourth quarter of what was, at that point, a tie game. The Raptors pushed back multiple times. Trailing by 11 with 4:09 left, Fred VanVleet hit a long three in transition, set up Pascal Siakam for a floater in the paint and – after a pair of missed threes by OG Anunoby – grabbed the rebound and knocked down another three. That made it a one-point game with 1:51 to play. But Portland scored six unanswered points from there to pull away for good.
The Raptors fell to 7-8 as they begin their six-game road trip, while Portland improved to 7-8 while winning on the second night of a back-to-back.
Powell didn’t have signature night at either end of the floor, finishing with 12 points on 3-of-9 shooting.
Instead, it was Gary Trent Jr. who showed well against his old team in his old building, putting up 18 points on 8-of-16 shooting, though he did suffer the misfortune of having his old teammate CJ McCollum put the game on ice when he scored on Trent Jr. in isolation in the game’s final minute.
But Powell will at least have bragging rights to hold over VanVleet in their frequent text exchanges, as the Trail Blazers improved to 2-0 over the Raptors since he joined them, going back to last season.
The reason last night at least, was that the Raptors struggled down the stretch defensively. There are likely a lot of factors at work there – trying to contain McCollum and Damian Lillard is a task many teams have failed before.
It probably doesn’t help that the Raptors' starters all played between 39 and 41 minutes. But, then again, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse clearly doesn’t have confidence in his bench at the moment. Perhaps with good reason: Dalano Banton, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malachi Flynn were a combined -28 in 20 minutes of floor time.
“I would say this, I don't think as a team we guarded very well,” said Nurse. “I don’t know if it’s looking at matchups and things like that, I just think that I mean when they shoot 56 per cent …”
McCollum and Lillard scored 29 and 24 points, respectively, while combining to shoot 21-of-39 and 9-of-17 from three. Meanwhile Portland’s bench combined to shoot 16-of-23.
“I just feel we’re not playing the same type of defence when we were on that five-game winning streak,” said Khem Birch. “Even myself, I gotta stop thinking about my man, play more team defence. I think we just gotta play more team defence in general.”
Powell was 0-of-4 from deep which is unusual for him. He came into the game shooting 44.8 per cent from deep this season for Portland. When he was traded for Trent Jr. at the deadline last March, he was shooting 43.9 per cent for the Raptors.
It’s a skill that has made him very wealthy. This past summer he signed a five-year contract for $90 million. Shooters get paid. When the Raptors try sell young players on the merits of their player development program it’s not hard: examples like Powell, going from rookie minimum to where he is now, speak for themselves.
His success is easy to root for.
“It's another milestone, obviously. Set for life pretty much. But you know, it's a milestone for me and I'm always looking for the next challenge,” he said. “You know, I want to establish myself as one of the best players in the league. I want to make an All-Star team, I want to win the awards that the top players have. That's always been my goal. Obviously, it changes based on roles and things like that with the team but those will always be my expectations so I’m going to continue to work and continue to plug away.”
Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby, left, shoots over Portland Trail Blazers forward Norman Powell during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (Craig Mitchelldyer/AP)
One of reasons the Trail Blazers wanted to trade for Powell is they thought he could bring some defensive chops, too.
But one of the reasons the Raptors felt comfortable moving on from Powell was that they weren’t sold on his abilities to be the kind of defender they felt they needed.
And as if to prove it, the Raptors went right at their old pal from the moment the ball went up at Modo Center.
The Blazers started very small across their backcourt, with the six-foot-three Powell at forward alongside guards Lillard and McCollum. That meant Powell was the one who guarded Anunoby, giving up five inches and 30 pounds. And that meant he was the matchup the Raptors were hunting in the early going.
Anunoby – himself a pretty convincing product of the Raptors player development program – was more than ready. He exploded in the first quarter for 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including making all four of his threes. They weren’t all on Powell – at times the Raptors' ball movement was good enough that Powell and the rest of his team were chasing ghosts behind the ball. But there were several where Anunoby was simply the bigger and better player.
The Raptors had Portland on their heels early, jumping out to a 33-24 lead.
Powell was hoping that he could put a number on his old team.
“I'm competitive, so we're all competitive," he said with a smile. “Competing with those guys is fun.”
It’s a mindset that has served him well. His evolution as a shooter – he shot just 31 per cent from deep in four years at UCLA – is one example of how his determination and self-belief have manifested in on-court results.
“I always say this, yeah, we can give ‘em suggestions and make tweaks, do things and then it goes squarely right on their table to go to work on it,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And you guys know how hard that guy worked to become an NBA shooter and now an NBA elite shooter. I Just hope he doesn’t make too many tonight. We’re proud of him but (not) tonight, that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
There was not a worry, turns out. Powell was wide open in the corner on his first touch but short armed it. He missed his next look at three, too. He lost the ball out of bounds driving left and didn’t score his first hoop until he was fouled in transition midway through the second quarter.
Fortunately, the Blazers aren’t short of guys who can score. McCollum and Lillard combined for 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting as Portland began clawing back. Anunoby kept his roll going, adding nine second-quarter points to finish with 23 before halftime as he went 6-of-8 from three. He cooled considerably in the second half, finishing with 29.
As a team Toronto shot just 36 per cent in the quarter. A Powell lay-up with 54 seconds left gave Portland their first lead at 61-60, which is how they started second half.
The Trail Blazers were the better team from there, even if Powell wasn’t at his best, but he didn’t need to be. The Raptors were far from their best either.