Nav Bhatia, the Toronto Raptors resident super fan, sat timidly on the sideline. Feet shoulder-width apart with Air Jordan 1’s on, hands joined together across his lap and a red rally towel slung over his left shoulder as he watched Marc Gasol jab-step and pass the ball to the corner. His eyes track it and locate Norman Powell. Gasol jogs to the corner and sets a screen for Powell, who then deftly navigates the space between Gasol and the sideline before pulling up for three. Ball goes up, ball goes in. The Air Jordan 1’s are moving rapidly, the rally towel is swinging wildly above Bhatia’s head, Powell had made the first bucket of his personal 7-3 run against the Bucks. He had arrived in Game 3.
Powell comes into a Raptors-Bucks series breathing fire. Hitting from downtown, attacking from the short-corner, bounding in transition and playing sticky but physical defense. We’ve seen this story before. Two years ago. The two teams have changed dramatically. One became fully realized, and the other swapped out loveable parts for gob-smacking efficiency and dominance. Powell has found a role in both series despite the differences, and it’s because the framework for success has remained unchanged.
Two years later, same shot, same corner and the very same turnaround to talk s*** to the Bucks bench. I respect the consistency so much. It’s worthwhile to point out that Powell has been one of the Raptors most consistent playoff performers of the past few years. Why is that? Well, it’s for the same reason that James Ennis III played well against the Raptors. Some players can really maximize a simple role.
Powell possesses most of the tools that a superstar generally has, which makes him fairly unique on the Raptors. For example, Fred VanVleet has struggled all playoffs long and did so last year as well. He’s a player that “thinks” the game at a very high level, and this facet of his game allows him to outfox regular season competition as a primary ball-handler. When the playoffs obligate all players to start thinking the game and digesting it at a higher level, VanVleet loses one of his advantages. Inversely, when Powell – who’s game is built on his extraordinary athletic gifts – enters a playoff game as a tertiary option all he has to do is act.
The “action” of Powell’s game has always been his strongest asset. When he dunked on Anthony Davis, he was attacking a close-out. Most of his success in the playoffs comes from spotting up and shooting without conscience, or attacking a rotating defense. It’s this version of basketball that favours Powell’s inherent physical gifts, and when the game becomes simple he performs at a high level. When the game becomes simple for VanVleet, he loses the ability to out-game and outwit people, and his size and lack of explosion becomes a real problem. If Powell is anything, he’s explosive.
It’s painfully clear that the Raptors need someone who can punish the Bucks for the type of defense they’re playing. Who better than the man who’s done it before? More than anything in these playoffs we’ve lamented the inability of the Raptors to finish, to hit shots. It was often enough that the Raptors were looking at good – sometimes great – shots, but they wouldn’t drop. Powell’s sudden surge of no-nonsense shot-making has been a shot of adrenaline now, the same way it was in 2017.
It’s the same reason why Eric Gordon starts to look like an absolute stud once the Rockets reach the playoffs. In the regular season he’s not super crafty, and he’s a tad bit streaky. When the playoffs roll around and teams start to key in on James Harden and Chris Paul, suddenly a hyper-athletic, fast-twitch athlete blowing by the first line of defense starts to cause problems. It’s no different for Powell.
Not only is Powell uniquely equipped to attack the Bucks’ defense, but he acts as a buffer against a few of their primary scoring options. Powell is slinky enough to wind around screens chasing George Hill, quick enough to hang with Eric Bledsoe, strong enough to bang with Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton, and tenacious enough to hang on with Giannis Antetokounmpo once in awhile. Antetokounmpo has only led the Bucks in scoring once through three games. The Bucks are turning to new places in their offense. Powell is part of the group that is forcing their hand that way, and his role in this series can only seem to get bigger.
When Powell was asked about why his game seems to shine through against the Bucks he kept it moving, citing hard-work and a “can do” attitude as the barometers for success. If I were a fly on the wall when he and the coaching staff go over tape, I would guess that he and the coaching staff understand his utility in this series a great deal. It’s fair to say that Powell would have more difficulty navigating the stunting and switching of the Golden State defense, and trying to negotiate a drive to the rim with Draymond Green waiting is a daunting task. For this particular series, though, Powell has been worth his weight in gold.
Have a blessed day.