The Toronto Raptors get their litmus test.
All due respect to the Brooklyn Nets and the effort level Jacque Vaughn was able to coax out of his players over the four games, but this first round was about revving up the engine for what should be a real test in the Boston Celtics.
That’ll be the first of, hopefully, a few more tests the Raptors face this post-season, but when looking inward to gauge where the team is effort, there is no better place to look than how Norman Powell is doing in any particular game.
Powell has found a new level this season, especially in terms of consistency, and to see him firing on all cylinders ahead of the Celtics series will be a major confidence boost, and even more necessary if Kyle Lowry is to miss any time whatsoever.
The Raptors came away with a lopsided 150-122 win over the Nets for their first-ever series sweep, and Powell stepped in admirably for Lowry with 29 points in 24 minutes. Let’s dig into his success on the night.
DEFENDING LEVERT: SOME GOOD
With Lowry’s departure from the game and Fred VanVleet’s early foul trouble, Powell took on the task of defending the Nets’ best scorer, Caris LeVert. This was easily LeVert’s best offensive game of the series, finishing with 35 points and six assists to three turnovers and shooting 6-of-9 from beyond the arc.
To assume that one caused the other would frankly be ignorant. If we’re being completely honest, the Raptors — having earned a 3-0 series lead — came out early looking like they were happy to outgun the Nets in this one and not expend as much effort defensively until it was really time to land the knockout punch later. LeVert got himself some easy ones early, and to his credit, the really good players in this league can only be held down for so long.
Below are some bright spots from Powell’s defence.
In the first play at the end of the first quarter, you can see the Nets seeking out a switch to get LeVert onto Matt Thomas, but Powell does a great job refusing to relent and staying with the Nets guard the whole way through. In the second, Powell is right up on LeVert up top, recognizes the opportunity to steal when LeVert is actually trying to create space with a rip through, and then is off to the races.
There were a couple of unnecessary fouls mixed in, but even in Play 6 at the 1:30 mark, Powell is locked in and completely denies LeVert the ball.
DEFENDING LEVERT: SOME BAD
It wasn’t all pretty for Powell, though, as LeVert certainly got the better of him as the game progressed and ultimately made Raptors head coach Nick Nurse turn the matchup over to OG Anunoby. In the first two plays below, Powell can’t do much but tip his hat as those are just great shots from LeVert. In the third play (0:20), Powell is completely taken out by the screen but Ibaka — in drop coverage — is able to have his teammate’s back at the rim. Even with the momentum LeVert had going towards the basket, I’m a little surprised he didn’t opt for a pull-up mid-range jumper. He does love getting to that dotted line, though.
In the final play, LeVert’s herky jerky style and slick handle proves too much for Powell and he compounds getting beat by committing a lazy reach-in foul.
RIM PROTECTOR POWELL
Powell also had some bright spots as a help defender, and the first clip shows him sticking with a cutting Chris Chiozza before staying in the lane to block Tyler Johnson at the rim. Staying locked in and focused, making the next play after the initial action or making the right rotation have been a work in progress for Powell, and so a play like this is an encouraging sign.
The second play below is him defending the ball handler Chiozza, he smartly engages in a help “action” to work with Marc Gasol and prevent an interior pass to Jarrett Allen at all costs. Chiozza doesn’t even consider throwing up a runner, but the result is a three.
The third and fourth plays are similar in that they both illustrate the Raptors’ focus on yielding nothing at the rim, and also highlight how Toronto defends the baseline dribble. The big helps the baseline defender, and instead of the opposing big having an opportunity to cut to the rim or show for his teammate, a perimeter defender denies the path and passing lane as Powell does.
Once again, appreciate Powell’s effort level on that final play. He loses Temple initially off the screen, swipes at Musa’s dribble, recovers back to Temple so he can’t get a clean three-point look, and again, when Johnson attacks baseline, Ibaka goes and helps trusting that Powell will take away the pass to Allen. Call him Swarmin’ Norman?
MAKING IT RAIN
There’s not much to describe here except the fact that Powell is consistently taking good looks from the outside. The only time he’s really getting them up under a bit of duress is when the shot clock is winding down. He shot 42 percent on corner threes this season, but the one that gets you excited is seeing that he made 40 percent of his non-corner three-point attempts.
The difference, in my opinion, in Powell’s success finishing at the rim this season has been all about balance and where he’s gathering from. The first play typifies the way he’s operating around the basket this season, as he’s decisive off the catch and takes one final dribble where he might have looked to take off from before. It allows for a smooth, balanced two-step elevation and finish that might’ve been an awkward take-off with the right and attempted finish with left going away from the basket last year.
For the playoffs, Powell is now shooting 14-for-17 within five feet of the basket and was stellar in the regular season as well, finishing 67 percent of his shots at the rim on the season — good for the 80th percentile among wing players, per Cleaning the Glass.
BONUS: BLINKERS OFF
Powell is always going to be a scorer first and, frankly, considering how unselfish this team is, his aggressive mentality when it comes to putting the ball in the bucket is much needed.
You still like to see baby steps in that part of his game, though, and there were a couple nice passes he made sandwiched between one floater he attempted going at Allen where he may have been better off penetrating and finding Pascal Siakam for three.
Lastly, Powell pushes off a miss and forces the Nets on their heels, allowing for a couple quick swings to Anunoby for the three.
While it took some perfectly understandable time in the bubble to find his groove, it’s great to see Powell looking the way he’s looked all season right in time for the Celtics series. Even with Gordon Hayward out for the series, the Celtics have the guard and wing depth that is going to make Powell’s contributions pivotal to a series win.
Powell has increasingly become both a calming and exhilarating influence for the Raptors, helping bail stagnant possessions with smart cuts to the basket or plays from up top and then giving a team a jolt with his thunderous dunks. The Raptors will need all of it in spades beginning Thursday.