There will undoubtedly be better opponents than Melbourne United standing opposite the Toronto Raptors over the course of the regular NBA season.
Australia deserves credit for producing NBA level talent, a list that is only growing, but the National Basketball League comes nowhere near boasting the power and athleticism of the best basketball league in the world. They pride themselves on the execution of technical skills and intricate strategies — in other words, in the face of superior opposition, they hope to be the hard work that beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
A year ago, they very nearly did just that. On Oct. 9, 2017, Melbourne took on the Oklahoma City Thunder and came within a pair of rejected shots by Josh Heustis at the end of the game of pulling off the shock victory, losing 86-85. The then highly anticipated trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony combined for 50 points on 46 shots, opening the door for United to steal the victory.
— NBL (@NBL) October 8, 2017
Perhaps, then, it was fitting that the Raptors rested two of its biggest stars in Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry — among others — and allowed its more role-centric players to take the spotlight and go for the kill at the first sniff of blood.
Norman Powell, ever the hustler as owner and ambassador of Understand The Grind, wasted no time showing Melbourne that this was not going to go down like it did at Chesapeake Arena (Blake Murphy wrote about how he’s determined to show this year won’t go down like the last one, either). The Raptors jumped out to a 21-7 lead, went up by as many as 44, before rounding out a 120-82 victory.
The former UCLA star finished with 21 points in just over 24 minutes, only teasing his alpha status for the game early. There was a controlled drive to the basket after receiving a dribble hand-off from Serge Ibaka at the top of the three-point line, before launching a pair of no-hesitation threes from above the break, one of which was made.
He checked out of the game after that, but picked up where he left off upon re-entering midway through the second quarter with a heady drive to the rim finished in typically thunderous Norm fashion. The steady dose of drives continued, along with the confident three-point tries, but perhaps most encouraging was the improved decision-making he showed on drives when he kicked the ball out to open teammates. Whether it was Jonas Valanciunas on the inside or Delon Wright on the inside, Powell made a concerted effort to find the open man which mixed in nicely with his individual finishes.
It was all good, until a moment of worry with 4:23 remaining in the third quarter.
After handing the ball off and looking to make a cut to the basket, Powell appeared to bump his right leg into Chris Goulding and was ruled out for the remainder of the game. The Raptors called it a a right thigh contusion. I’m not going to speculate.
Just as Powell’s injury last season opened the door for OG Anunoby to earn the starting small forward role a season ago, his loss this night was Deng Adel’s gain. Checking in with the Raptors already up 85-47, he got himself going with a steal and Euro step on the run that earned him a pair of free-throws, before making all five of his field goal attempts including a three and this sweet spin move for the lay-in.
Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka impressed as well, but this was Powell’s night, and in a way the Raptors may need in the future. If there’s one thing the Bench Mob struggled with a season ago, it was putting the ball in the bucket in the half-court, and Powell’s potential to attack closeouts off penetration by Fred VanVleet, Wright or Siakam could be a difference-maker. Consistently playing with one of Valanciunas or Ibaka at the five helps negate the limits of his shooting as well, in theory.
As Nick Nurse has preached, the flexibility of this roster is quite special. If both C.J. Miles and Powell are performing to their utmost capabilities, it’s not hard to envision Nurse going with whatever he needs in the moment. If the team is in desperate need of some spacing because other guys are cold, Miles would be a no-brainer. On a night where guys are hitting their shots and they need a bit more on the defensive end and off the bounce, Powell’s the guy.
This was only one night, and the competition only gets stiffer from here. But, at a time when early rewards for the grinding over the summer can be so vital to a player hitting the ground running, seeing the ball go in from distance, finishing at the rim with control and finding open teammates are vital signs that Powell is looking to put away the misery of last season and kick off the first year of his extension by making himself relevant again.
- Delon Wright, Danny Green, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka were your starters in the first half, with Jonas Valanciunas stepping in for Ibaka to start the second half.
- Wright was spectacular in this game. The all-round floor game is something we’ve come to expect, but it was the confidence in his three-point shot that stood out in this one. Two came off the dribble (one after going behind-the-back) and another off a quick catch-and-shoot courtesy a Powell kick-out.
- The Raptors had an exquisite possession to end the first half. There was about an eight-second shot clock, game clock difference, Wright received a screen up top from Greg Monroe, went right and dropped a pocket pass to the Big Moose as he rolled, who then shoveled a pass to Pascal Siakam underneath the rim. The Cameroonian spun away from the basket to locate Danny Green wide open in the left corner, but he missed. Still, it was beautiful to watch.
- Remember Josh Boone, formerly of the New Jersey Nets? Yeah, he plays for Melbourne United now. He finished with nine points and 11 rebounds in 23 minutes of action.
- Up next for the Raptors is a Sunday Open Practice at the Mattamy Athletic Centre before they head to Montreal to face the Brooklyn Nets.