Norman Powell’s career night puts exclamation point on 56-win season

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Raptors 103, Nets 96 | Quick Reaction | Box Score

There should have been no expectations whatsoever for Wednesday’s season finale. The Toronto Raptors visited the Brooklyn Nets, and they did so with absolutely nothing tangible on the line. They had already accomplished so much, more than most expected, blowing well past all previous benchmarks of regular season success in their history. They opted to leave Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, James Johnson, and Jonas Valanciunas in Toronto, rolling with a skeleton crew. Luis Scola wound up resting from Brooklyn, too. There was little sense the Raptors cared about the game, and the Nets had long-since given up caring about games.

If the focus was going to fall anywhere, it was likely going to be on Bruno Caboclo, who drew the start. It’s a little surprising Jesse Mermuys didn’t get the call up from Raptors 905 for the game, as Lucas Nogueira, Delon Wright, and Norman Powell also started. (Jason Thompson had to fill the Anthony Bennett role.)

Giving Caboclo the starting nod was a follow-up on Dwane Casey’s comment Friday that the team was hopeful to get him some run in order to help him recalibrate as to where he’s at and what he needs to work on. As it turns out, the answer to that question is “everything, and then some.” It’s tough to imagine Caboclo’s night having gotten off to a worse start, as the first nine minutes of the game saw him make mistake after mistake and miss shot after shot. He settled down some from there, finding his way into the right rotations on defense and making quick decisions with the ball, though he saw it far less as the game wore on.

The final stat line is about as representative as a stat line can get: In 35 minutes (more than he had played in his entire NBA career to this point), Caboclo went 1-of-9 for three points with just one rebound, one assist, one steal, and one block, plus three turnovers. That the Raptors were a plus-six in his time on the floor tells you how far plus-minus gets you without the proper context.

There’s no way to spin the outing but as a disappointment. Just this week, I wrote about Caboclo’s progress with the 905 this year, and the conclusion of the article looks almost silly a few days later. I watched every minute Caboclo played in the D-League this season, and I spoke regularly with Mermuys and others in the organization about his progress. The analysis concluded that Caboclo was still pretty far away, but that he might be able to beat the “two years away from being two years away” timeline.

That’s still entirely possible. Wednesday was just one night, his first time ever getting serious run in an NBA game. He looked wildly out of place, but he also didn’t have the benefit of great players around him, something Powrll and Wright benefited from as they got their feet wet. That’s not an excuse, and again, Caboclo probably couldn’t have played worse, at least early on (and then he went from negative to non-factor, hardly a big jump). But the lights are bright despite the theatre lighting at Barclays Center, and Caboclo’s still only at 66 minutes for his career. This game probably shouldn’t move the needle much, and if anything, maybe it’s for the best for Caboclo to keep him motivated through the offseason.

Caboclo’s play was part of a team-wide malaise to start the game, with the Raptors falling down 17 in the game’s opening minutes, unable to score for nearly five. Wright was having difficulty getting into the paint with no spacing around him, Powell had similar issues and bricked a pair of free-throws that could have broken the drought, Thompson was misfiring, and Nogueira looked like he was set for one of those bad Bebe nights.

And that’s about where the negatives ended.

Midway through he frame, Nogueira found a cutting Wright with a beautiful pass, and the Raptors were on the board. Then Wright found Thompson on a dump-off. Then the Raptors began filtering in their regulars, and something not at all unexpected happened – the young role players suddenly looked far more comfortable with help around them. That confidence grew quickly as the Raptors put a run together, and the lead was down to 10 at the end of the quarter. It was gone completely before the game reached halftime, and the Raptors would eventually push the lead to as many as 17 on their side of the ledger, too. The Nets made a few mini-comebacks and closed the final deficit to seven, but after a hot start to the third quarter, the Raptors never really felt in danger of losing the game.

That’s a great sign for the depth this team has built and how good a job they’ve done developing players on the fly while also serving a win-now mentality. Caboclo remains a giant question mark, but nearly to a man, the players on the roster are better now than at the start of the season. And sure, the D-League Detachment couldn’t do it on their own – the four D-Leaguers were outscored by one point in their 24 minutes together – and the game was against what’s left of the Nets, themselves pretty close to a D-League squad. Still, the Raptors rested four presumed starters and one reserve and still won. That’s impressive regardless of the game situation.

Wright was his usual self, using funky, amoebic drives and passes you don’t see as possibilities until they happen to get the defense scrambling. Once he had some breathing room in the pick-and-roll, his penetration helped improve the team’s ball movement, and he wound up with seven of the team’s 24 assists. He also scored 18 points, grabbed five rebounds, and even blocked two shots, one of them a great recovery in help.

Nogueira shook off that shaky start, too, and turned in 36 good minutes. He used his length well on offense to keep balls alive and finish around the rim, and he put some of the passing that makes him so unique on display with three assists. He had three blocks at the other end, and while I thought he could have contested at the rim with a little more toughness on a few occasions, he was solid overall. I’m not sure this outing changed Casey’s trust level with Nogueira, but credit Casey for giving Nogueira chances to earn that trust down the stretch. Indiana might not be the opponent, but Nogueira could be a useful chess piece in small minutes depending on the opponent.

And then there’s Powell, who has spent the last six weeks making it next to impossible for Casey to take him out of the rotation come playoff time. What he’s doing well doesn’t necessarily need re-hashing here, but he put all of it on display in this one, scoring a career-high 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting with nine rebounds and five assists. That’s a great line for any rookie to put up, and considering this is a second-round pick who didn’t look all that comfortable in his first opportunity early in the year, it’s a great sign of growth. Powell’s always been an effective straight-line driver, but he’s gotten better at attacking from the corners instead of just north-south, and he’s come a long way in finding players off the dribble or seeing an extra pass along the perimeter.

Yes, the perimeter. I’m burying the lede 1,300 words in. Powell hit 5-of-6 from long-range to push his 3-point percentage to 40.4 and to 46.7 percent since the beginning of March. We’re still talking about the smallest of sample sizes – 3-point shooting stabilizes around 750 attempts – for a guy who wasn’t much of a shooter in college, but Powell’s been working tirelessly to retool his stroke since the moment he was drafted, and he gets much cleaner looks now as a role player in a great offense than he did in a starring role at UCLA.

He’s improved in key areas, and that’s allowing him to bring the defense he was touted for. Some have gotten a little carried away with his ultimate upside and overall potential. Nights like tonight make it easy to see why. Anything he provided would be found money, and the Raptors have found a good deal of it with a bona fide rotation player in the second round. He’ll have a somewhat short leash once the playoffs get going and Carroll works his way into a larger minutes load, but he’ll push for minutes, whether as a starter or off the bench.

His presumed competition for minutes, T.J. Ross, had a solid night in support, too. He recorded his first career double-double with 24 points and 10 rebounds, and while he got a bit shot-happy with 21 attempts in 29 minutes, the truth is that he entered hot at a time the Raptors desperately needed that offensive punch. He really helps the offense breathe, as opponents respect his outside shot a great deal and he’s become adept at freeing himself for clean looks on pin-downs and curls. Patrick Patterson, Bismack Biyombo, and Cory Joseph also provided steady hands in small minutes off the bench, helping the young starters settle things down and resetting the tempo and tone of the game.

I have more to say, but we’re 1,600 words into a recap of Game 82 against the Nets where five players sat, so…maybe I should take my own earlier advice for the Raptors and save something for the playoffs.

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