Player Breakdown: Powell vs. Celtics Game 5, Sept. 7

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(Brad Wanamaker of the Celtics gets a step on Norman Powell of the Raptors in Friday night’s game in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. ASHLEY LANDIS / AP)

If Playoff Powell doesn’t show up for Game 5 of a 2-2 series, will he show up at all?

Now, to be fair, no one in a Toronto Raptors uniform showed up Monday night. They were out-executed, out-hustled and outplayed in every way during a 111-89 bludgeoning, and will have to lick their wounds quickly before Wednesday. For those who look to the box score and point out that Norman Powell led the team in scoring with 16 points, half of those points came in a meaningless fourth quarter.

Sure, hopefully that stretch of playing time will give him a bit of momentum and the 3-for-4 shooting in that quarter might give him some confidence heading into an elimination game, but any semblance of hope that he will snap out of it now is clutching at straws.

Over the course of the series, Brad Wanamaker, and Robert Williams III have both provided the Celtics with a bigger lift off the bench, something that wouldn’t have been expected going in. Marcus Smart would have been a bench contributor if not for the injury to Gordon Hayward and has been crucial to Boston’s success. Heck, had the type of shooting stretch in Game 2 that you’d hope to see from Powell in Game 6.

“There’s gonna be a Norman game,” Fred VanVleet said. “There’s gonna be games where guys off the bench are gonna have to will us and give us a spark.”

Is there any reason to expect Powell to turn things around in a win-or-go-home situation? Let’s see.

OUTSIDE STROKE

The biggest improvement in Powell’s game this season was consistency, and that consistency was contingent on him making much better decisions. This series has seen much of the old Powell, though, having a predetermined course of action and following through on it regardless of the defence being prepared.

This is highlighted in Play No. 2 below where the Raptors run a set play for Powell in the corner and he rises up for the shot seeing that Ibaka has screened out Jayson Tatum but doesn’t recognize that Williams has switched over to help. The two plays that follow sum up what Powell has been in this series in a nutshell. It’s almost as if he’s trying too hard to drop points in a hurry. First he makes a good, balanced shot with Williams sagging away from him momentarily, and that’s followed by him forcing up a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer on the break. It’s 33-19 early in the second quarter, there’s no 14-point shot available.

Play No. 6 at the 1:14 mark shows how much Powell is in his own head right now. Wide open in the corner and he passes it off, then forces up the next look because he knows he should have shot the first one. There’s an added negative effect as the miss leads to Pascal Siakam picking up his fifth foul. In the final play as well, you see Powell force up a look just to create a 2-for-1 situation. It’s just so uncharacteristic of who he’s been all season.

ATTACKING THE RIM

Powell was actually pretty good getting to the rim outside of the first play below where he barreled into Kemba Walker in transition. That’s a no-no and Powell should know by now exactly what the Boston guard will look to do in situations like that. Be a bit more deliberate with the approach and look for where you can side-step with more balance and control. After shooting 14-of-17 within five feet of the basket against Brooklyn in the first round, Powell is 7-for-16 against Boston.

DEFENDING TATUM

Powell spent several possessions on Tatum and reviewing the film left me with a better impression than when I was watching live. In fact, a couple of occasions were clearly teammates just letting him down. The biggest miscue came at the 0:50 mark — Play No. 5 — where he’s defending a Tatum post-up anticipating help from the weakside where VanVleet is waiting. Except, VanVleet tries to get Serge Ibaka to switch with him far too late. That’s a reflection of the overall intensity and sharpness with which the Raptors showed up to Game 5 with.

DEFENSIVE MISCUES

If there was a real point of frustration with Powell, it was his close-outs. They were frankly atrocious. The first one you see below is far too relaxed and it’s almost as if he thinks his job is done with the double on Tatum. The next two plays show him closing out way too hard almost as if too overcompensate for the first one. Toronto absolutely makes it their mission to chase opponents off the 3-point line, but that can’t mean completely taking yourself out of the play.

In the final play, just communicate on the rebound. That’s far too basic a mistake to be making on this stage.

NOT NORM’S FAULT!

One final play I’d like to highlight that clearly wasn’t Powell’s fault was at the end of the first half when Walker was able to get a fairly comfortable runner off for what seems like his 1358th buzzer beater of the series.

See how that’s not on Powell? Boucher is supposed to be ready at the 3-point line or even higher when Grant Williams goes to set the screen. Watch the video again and notice Nurse wave at him to go forward repeatedly, it shows a complete lack of awareness and attention to detail on his part that really becomes very difficult to trust.

Because Boucher is late to show himself to Kemba Walker, the man who has caused the Raptors a tonne of problems in this series recognizes the opportunity to attack a big man on his heels with a head of steam and the result is a fairly comfortable runner over Kyle Lowry. Watch Lowry also move his left hand forward to say, “Dude, you’re supposed to defend that screen way higher!”


What Powell we see in Game 6 will be easily identifiable by the decisions he makes early on. Will they flip on its head in the instant most needed? We’ve seen it before. How much of a leash he gets to make those decisions will be interesting to see as well.

“I would say I was probably a little too quick with Norm the other night,” Nurse said about Game 2 and looking ahead to Game 3. “I didn’t give him much of a chance. I probably take the responsibility for that one. I’ve gotta give him a run to get a chance to go and for whatever reason, I was quick to get him out of there, and then he just kinda happens to be in an unfortunate few minutes of the game that looks, you know, it doesn’t look good for some of those guys that are playing off the bench.”

My thinking lends toward the belief that if Powell doesn’t show he has it early on, there’s got to be a short leash and you’ve got to see what Matt Thomas can bring to the table. He certainly brings his share of defensive concerns, but the floor spacing and shooting he provides is unquestionable. As VanVleet alluded to earlier, it’s about finding that spark.

I think back to when the Celtics blew out the Raptors in the seeding game and Toronto played the Grizzlies the next game. They got off to an ice-cold start from the outside in that one as well, so Nurse turned to Thomas. He stepped in and made a couple threes and all of a sudden the Raptors found their flow again. It’s an intangible that can’t really be described, but just seeing someone put the ball in the bucket can have a residual effect on everyone else.

At the same time, just as Marc Gasol has been discouraging offensively, the Raptors have needed his defence and aren’t winning the series without him. Along those lines, it’s hard to imagine Toronto completes this comeback against Boston without a single standout performance from Powell.

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