By Vivek Jacob
The Toronto Raptors are no stranger to having their backs pushed against the playoff wall. It was only last postseason, with Toronto trailing the Indiana Pacers by 15 points with under a minute remaining in the third quarter and the series tied at two games apiece, that their first round playoff lives appeared to hang in the balance.
Once again, the Raptors appear overwhelmed against a lower seed in the playoffs, this time struggling against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Over this recent stretch of playoff runs, this core group struggles to translate the answers it finds in the regular season to the different set of questions the playoffs pose. But with one adjustment—and a familiar one at that—Toronto managed to stave off a 1-3 deficit, tying the series with a win in game four.
For a second consecutive postseason, with Dwane Casey’s job in doubt, the Raptors’ coach turned to Norman Powell.
A year ago, in that game against the Pacers, Powell stepped in as a rookie and helped spark a decisive 23-2 run to help the Raptors win the game and, eventually, the series.
After Powell produced a few momentum-changing dunks and some quality defense against Paul George, the Pacers’ star pulled him aside for some words of encouragement following the Raptors’ game seven win.
“I was in that position as a rookie,” George said. “I had to guard the best player in the game at the time: Derrick Rose. So, I gave him a couple of words.”
This season, Powell was put into a tough situation. With DeMarre Carroll still working his way back from knee surgery, forcing him to sit out back-to-backs, Powell would swing from starting lineup to end of the bench at moment’s notice.
In nine games starting for Carroll, Powell averaged 13.9 points per game on 47.7 percent shooting from the field and 39.5 percent on nearly five three-point attempts per game. When DeMar DeRozan was forced to miss eight games with an ankle injury, Powell averaged 17.3 points as the starting guard.
Casey understood the awkward predicament he had placed the former UCLA guard in.
“He’s in a tough situation,” Casey said in an interview with The Step Back in December. “There are no magic words and he understands who he is, the role he’s in, where he is in this league and he’s taking advantage of the opportunity. He’s in a good spot with our team, with himself… I wish I could find more minutes for him, I really do.”
After the Milwaukee Bucks steamrolled the Toronto Raptors in Game 3, creating mismatches with every pick-and-roll and beating them to every spot on the floor, Casey knew he needed to downsize. Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka were being dragged out to the perimeter by Thon Maker and Tony Snell, making for an easy path to the rim. Looking to avoid a 3-1 deficit heading into Game 5, Powell was inserted into the starting lineup to replace the Lithuanian center.
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His primary responsibility on the defensive end was Khris Middleton, who was averaging 16.7 points, six assists, and 3.3 rebounds over the first three games of the series.
Powell’s strengths defensively are a 6’11’’ wingspan and an strong lower body. The Bucks’ length has been an issue for the Raptors all series, but Powell held his own. Middleton shot just 4-for-13 from the field for 10 points, and turned the ball over four times after not turning the ball over even once in the Bucks two wins.
On a night where his teammates shot a combined 3-for-19 from three-point range, Powell was a perfect 3-for-3. With under four minutes remaining in the third quarter, he hit a three as part of a 12-2 run for the Raptors that stretched the lead to nine. There was a stretch in the early-to-mid fourth quarter where the Bucks found their offence through Greg Monroe and challenged the Raptors sustain theirs. Powell responded with two drives, creating four points for Valanciunas. The big man also benefitted from Casey’s lineup change, matching up almost exclusively with Monroe and scoring all 12 of the Raptors’ bench points.
Powell capped off his 12-4-4 night with a corner-three that extended the Raptors’ lead to 79-69.
After the Raptors pulled out the 87-76 victory to tie the series heading back to Toronto, Casey was effusive in his praise of the sophomore.
“I thought he (Powell) played really well,” Casey said. “I thought, defensively, he had leverage, he got into his (Middleton’s) body, we held them to what — 37 percent? I just thought he did a good job, making sure he took up his space, got into him on pick-and-rolls, didn’t lose him on pin-downs — Middleton’s a tough cover, he’s a really tough cover and he’s been the difference in their team since he’s been back.”
Powell has been Casey’s wildcard all season, and he has grown accustomed to having his number called at any time.
“Work the same way as if I was in the starting lineup or gonna play 25-30 minutes a game,” Powell said in December. “I’m doing what the team is asking of me. It’s not an unfamiliar situation for me. I’ve been here before so it’s easy for me to adjust and I’ll just stay ready.”
With the Raptors’ playoff hopes fading once more, it was the player who spent all season in and out of the lineup that solidified their chances once more.