Powell powers Raptors to a playoff berth

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The Toronto Raptors are headed to the playoffs.

That statement doesn’t sound absurd. In fact, it was an expectation that they would earn their seventh consecutive playoff appearance heading into the season. However, what is absurd is that the Raptors have made this expectation a reality by early March. They are the second team to lock in a playoff berth, are projected by FiveThirtyEight to win 56 games, and their biggest headache nowadays seems to be deciding what their postseason crunch-time lineup will be.

One player who has made a case all season long to be in that closing five is Norman Powell. In his fourth game back from a hand injury, Powell had himself a night, pouring in a career-high 37 points in Toronto’s 121-113 win over Golden State.

“My main focus is doing whatever it takes to help get this team a win, I’m not really focused on the box score, the stats sheet, I’m just trying to make winning plays for the team and show that I belong out there,” said Powell.

He may not be focusing on the box score, but the Raptors needed every single one of Powell’s statistical contributions on Thursday. With Pascal Siakam enduring a rough night offensively (barring two awesome clutch buckets to ice the game) the onus was on Powell to kick-start the offence, and he did so to the tune of 23 first-half points on 9-for-14 shooting. Powell’s first four seasons have been defined by inconsistency, however, this year he has reliably provided volume scoring at an efficient level even amidst lengthy injury absences.

Hints of Powell’s progression as a three-point shooter emerged last season as he finished the year knocking down 40 per cent of his triples. This season Powell’s outside shooting has maintained despite nearly doubling his three-point attempts to 5.2 per game. This has been an essential part of Powell becoming a reliable floor-spacing role player.

Even more impressive has been Powell’s offensive growth at the rim. Despite being a strong off-ball cutter from the baseline, Powell struggled to get into the paint with the ball unless they were clear, straight-line moves. His footwork and handling wasn’t swift enough to adapt to defenders obtruding his lane, and Powell also struggled to absorb contact from rim protectors. This season is a different story:

Powell is getting to the rim effectively in a variety of ways. He is currently in the 89th percentile scoring off of handoffs, the 75th percentile scoring off of screens, and the 82nd percentile scoring off of cuts. Granted, not all of these play types result in shots at the rim, but they are the most frequent way that Nick Nurse gets Powell going downhill. Powell is calmer and stronger at taking contact on drives and is also flashing ambidexterity.

Powell’s development into a proven three-point shooter and his improved finishing at the rim aren’t mutually exclusive. Defenders are closing out faster on him and driving lanes are even wider to be exploited. Powell taking advantage of this new-found space has turned him into a more complete threat offensively.

“He’s becoming a scorer. And If you got the three-ball then you can drive, you can pull-up. Jeez, he hit one tonight, holy smokes, along the left baseline. It was one of those classic ‘Norm! Nice shot’, one of those deals, that’s what scorers do, they make tough shots,” said Nurse.

Greater consistency breeds greater trust. For Powell, that has now resulted in Nurse emphasizing him in the offence.

“In that little stretch where we really got it going, almost all of that stuff was set-pieces. We kinda feel him [Powell] going and we start running some stuff where we can turn hard and get into the paint, then we ran some plays for threes, and he was in that mode where you would be silly not to give him an action or a play to let him touch it at least,” Nurse said.

In fact, Nurse spent nearly all of the post-game press conference gushing over Powell’s growth.

“This is what I’d hope would happen with him this year,” said Nurse. “His maturity level though, I just don’t see the mistakes or turnovers or the lapses on D, or whatever. He is just playing like so much more of a complete basketball player.”

Powell is often deferential in his responses with the media, reiterating that his main focus is on the team winning and being aggressive. However, he lit up when asked about the added responsibility of guarding Stephen Curry. Powell hasn’t made a name for himself as a defender and at times loses focus later in the shot-clock, but it is an essential facet that will be needed to earn crunchtime playoff minutes for Nurse. If that end of the floor clicks for Powell, then he is on the precipice of becoming indispensable.

“I was actually really happy that the coaches trusted me to go out there and guard him [Curry], I took it as a challenge,” said Powell. “The emphasis was not to give any airspace, you know he can shoot it from anywhere. Force him right, numbers say that he likes to get in the paint more driving right than going left. Then just try to crowd him and make it difficult.”

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