Powell remains a wrinkle in Casey’s pristine season

It was a dreamy first-half by even the highest standards.

Kyle Lowry and the entire Toronto Raptors squad came out like gang busters, throwing one haymaker after the other at the mighty Houston Rockets.

Yet, after a crowd of 20,131 went into a frenzy after a DeMar DeRozan three-pointer extended the lead to 19 and forced Houston to call a timeout, head coach Dwane Casey made his way towards Norman Powell on the court. He was fairly animated, patting him on the back several times, before heading back to the huddle.

“He was doing something he wasn’t supposed to do defensively,” Casey said after the game. “I was correcting him.”

One wouldn’t have thought that based on what had just transpired.

The Raptors were winning handily, Powell had just missed several wide-open looks from beyond the arc, and so one would have thought the conversation may have revolved around encouragement to keep shooting. Going back over the sequences that led to the discussion during the timeout, one piece of evidence tells all.

With 3:38 to go in the second quarter, Kyle Lowry finds a cutting Powell in the right corner for a look at a three. The former UCLA guard misses the shot but does well to follow it and collect the offensive rebound. He then calmly drains the open 10-footer before starting to trail back on defense. To most of us who would be ball-watching in this scenario, it’s hard to see what Powell does wrong.

Pay close attention to the bench, though, and you’ll see that as soon as Powell makes the shot, both Casey and assistant coach Rex Kalamian motion towards Powell to press full court and not allow James Harden any kind of breathing room. Powell fails to do that, causing Casey to flail his arms in frustration.

This is the level of attention to detail Toronto’s coaching staff is bringing to the table, where every “I” is dotted, and every ‘T’ is crossed. The score is irrelevant. This is what championship teams do.

Dwane Casey’s credentials for the Coach of the Year award appear superior to that of anyone else’s at this stage of the season. Barring what would be a surprising collapse, the Raptors will earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference. He has strived for professionalism from Day 1 and Toronto is now 29-2 against teams under .500.

The only two losses came on Nov. 22 against the New York Knicks when they surrendered a 28-0 run in the third quarter and then a day after Christmas in a listless performance against the Dallas Mavericks.

When Toronto made the trip to New York for Sunday’s game, they had every excuse in the world.

That the early start time and opportunity to rest on the laurels of their thrilling win over Houston didn’t matter is a testament to how far this team has progressed over the course of the season.

As DeRozan steadily makes his case for the runner-up to Harden in the MVP race, Jonas Valanciunas continues to prove that he’s found a new lease on life in the NBA, and the bench bullies teams on the regular, Powell remains Casey’s final project.

The two have shared a unique bond over the years, with Powell possibly even being the difference between Casey still being the coach of this team and not when he rescued the Raptors in Game 5 of their first-round matchup against the Indiana Pacers and then again versus the Milwaukee Bucks last year. During that time, Powell has put in time with the Raptors 905, has backed up DeMarre Carroll, and Casey has been unafraid to show him a bit of tough love when starting Malcolm Miller over him as well.

So, when Casey made his way over to Powell during that timeout, perhaps it was a reminder to his soldier that defense is his primary objective. A subtle way of keeping Powell from thinking about his shot and his offensive struggles, even.

As Lee Jenkins pointed out so eloquently in his feature on the Raptors’ winningest head coach, Casey is adamant about ironing out every wrinkle he sees. He has talked about those guys waiting in the alley with the big bats and preparing for that, and he will know that when the time comes he will need as many of his own weapons at his disposal.

Powell’s teammates know it, too. C.J. Miles, who has become a leader for this team’s bench unit with his veteran presence, has seen it all before.

“It could happen to anybody,” Miles said. “You could get into a little rut or a spot where you feel like you’ve got to make this drastic change but sometimes it’s just a little bit of rhythm, a little bit of timing that needs to come.”

Miles has been through his own struggles this season. He shot a pedestrian 35.3 percent from beyond the arc in December and January, but has caught fire ever since. Through 15 games in February and March, the former Pacers sharpshooter has fired away at a 42.2 percent clip on 6.8 attempts per game.

“Continue to do what you do, which is work on the off-days and play within yourself on the game days,” Miles said when asked about the process of staying patient. “Don’t go try to make some extra stuff happen, just let it come and take the shots you take and make the plays you make. It always falls back into place.”

This is perhaps where Powell’s struggles have been most evident, forcing the issue on drives this season and trying to finish over the trees in the paint when better passing options exist. Losing his starting job through injury and a rookie on the prowl can’t have been easy, but Miles stresses that teammates have done their best to maintain positivity.

“I think guys have done a good job of keeping him upbeat. I would tell him all the time that we’re going to need him when he was first falling in and out of the rotation, but it’s hard. It’s easy for me to say it to him because I’m not in it, but, I always stressed that we were going to need him. He’s too talented, too important to this team. What he does is exactly what we’ll need in a series to beat some team.”

That remains the underlying belief. That there is too much on offer for it to not matter when the stakes are highest, in an environment where his game and demeanor is arguably best suited. He gave everyone a taste against the Detroit Pistons this past Wednesday with 17 points that included knocking down three of his five attempts from long range, but a taste was all it was.

Powell was right back in his funk with nine total points over two games against the Rockets and Knicks, shooting just 1-for-9 from three. This remains Casey’s final wrinkle down the stretch — no blemish on the resume to be sure — but one that will be gnawing at him till he straightens it out.

As hard as it may be to believe Powell can snap out of his season-long struggles, it’s getting harder and harder to doubt Casey. After all, he’s ironed everything else out this season.

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