The players did their part to provide a sense of balance in the actual action, too. Trent and Powell started opposite each other and began the game guarding one another. On the Raptors’ second possession, Trent drove at Powell for a midrange shot that drew a foul, part of a successful first-half strategy of the Raptors trying to attack Powell into foul trouble. Powell responded by taking Trent into the paint for free throws of his own. Shortly after, Trent hit another midrange shot off of a nifty snaking of a drag screen, only for Powell to respond right back with a leak-out for a transition bucket.
Throughout what ended up being a very exciting game, eyes were naturally drawn to the trio involved in the trade. Pascal Siakam’s lit up with a chance to attack Powell for an and-one. Powell got Anunoby to bite on a 3-point foul. Aron Baynes even got involved, absolutely postering Powell on the least likely play of the night, then blocking him at the rim on one of Powell’s patented baseline attacks. Hood, too, was a major spark with 13 off the bench.
As narrative would have it, Powell was heavily involved in the game’s defining moments. He helped ice the game with free throws but not until missing a pair to make the final seconds more dramatic. It was during a monstrous 14-0 run in the third quarter, though, where the beauty of basketball revealed itself most glowingly.
With Anunoby and Trent engaging in an offensive action at the top of the floor, Powell poked the ball free. He corralled it, took it for a one-handed dunk and stared down the Raptors bench as he ran back down the floor. With Lowry out with a sore foot, not a single Raptor who was dressed was Powell’s teammate during the 2016 playoffs. That didn’t make the reference any less obvious. Before tipoff, Nick Nurse had been asked about Powell’s now-legendary Game 5 dunk against the Indiana Pacers, a moment that very well may have changed the franchise’s fate. This was as close to a replay as you could get, with Powell’s mean mug to the sideline representing a playful yet emphatic notice that he’ll now be swinging the fate of another franchise.
That can be hard to come to terms with. As kind as the discourse, interviews and reminiscing has been around both teams in the trade’s aftermath, that emotion can be exhausting. That the Raptors lost in predictable fashion — surrendering 13 offensive rebounds, struggling to find offence with the 3s not falling, squandering a great Siakam game and playing some questionable lineups late — certainly won’t soften the goodbye for Raptors fans. It has not been a season for positive vibes, and charming though Trent and Hood seem, there’s probably more losing ahead.
Five — Measured: The key for Anunoby is learning to channel his strength in a productive way. As he looks to become more of a focal point of the offense, the onus is on Anunoby to pick his spots. Seven of the Raptors’ 12 turnovers were made by Anunoby, and most of his mistakes are avoidable. Anunoby tried to take Nurkic off the dribble on back-to-back plays, which just isn’t smart especially when the jumper is available because the big is sagging back. There was another mistake where Anunoby muscled to his spot, but wasn’t strong with the ball as he went up and got stripped. Then there was a post-up against Damian Lillard where the defender just flopped, which happens often when guards are on him. These reps are important learning moments for Anunoby, who is already making good strides in his ability to get to create shots at the rim.
The game unravelled in the third quarter when the Raptors’ offence fell off a cliff. After going up by seven midway through the period, the Raptors managed just one field goal in the next five minutes and found themselves down by 10 as Portland put together a 19-2 run that was more indicative of the Toronto’s offensive woes than what the Trail Blazers were doing offensively. Toronto held Portland to just 37 per cent shooting in the third, but still fell behind as it shot just 4-of-22 and scored 10 points.
Powell didn’t exactly put on a show against his former team, but it takes little imagination to see how his ability to score at a high rate with the kind of efficiency that meshes well with other high-usage scorers will make the Trail Blazers a tough out in the playoffs.
The Trail Blazers, having seen Powell put up 22 points in 13 shots in his debut Friday, see big things ahead and a chance to double down on one of the most guard-heavy attacks in the NBA
“I think the quality of shots, the quality of our three-point shots will improve,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Because of him, I think the one thing that he really adds in addition to shooting is he really moves well without the ball and when Dame and CJ are able to penetrate, he’ll find open spots. So I think from an offensive standpoint, it makes us even harder to guard.”
The half couldn’t have worked out better for the Raptors, and, in particular, those with a vested interest in the trade working out in their favour as they led 41-32 after the first quarter and 74-68 at the half.
With Powell likely to decline his player option and head into free agency, Toronto had to calculate what the market might be for someone who has averaged 21 points a game and shot 45 per cent from three over 58 starts going back to last season. The concern was that Powell would be shopping for a deal in the $18-million to $20-million range annually and Toronto didn’t want to have to go that high for a player it had deemed increasingly one-dimensional as his attention to detail on defence faded as his offensive game grew.
Little Resistance in the First Half
The Raptors have shot below 45 percent from the field in the 10 games entering today’s action. In the first half, Toronto absolutely torched the nets en route to a 74-point performance. From the field, the Raptors converted 52 percent of their shots and converted 45.5 percent of their three-pointers. If they even imagined an extra pass, an open look would materialize. Portland’s rotations were too late and they struggled to cut off lanes to the basket. If a slight hiccup occurred or a scramble unfolded, the Blazers were completely underprepared to recover. That led to a never-ending stream of open shots for the Raptors.
Perhaps the most concerning part was that the Blazers put up 68 points of their own in the first half. That means—more often than not—the Raptors were facing a defense that should have been set after a made basket.
The Defense Finally Arrives
I don’t know what was said at halftime or in that huddle, but the Blazers were a completely different team in the third quarter. Instead of conceding ground, Portland’s perimeter defenders funneled Toronto’s advances into contested looks and turnovers. In transition, the Blazers got to their assignments quickly—preventing the Raptors from exploiting late-to-switch cross matchups.
After consecutive quarters of 41 and 33 points, the Raptors registered just four field goals for 10 points in the third quarter. Thanks to their defensive performance, the Blazers emerged from the frame with a seven-point advantage.
Minus Kyle Lowry (out with a sore foot), the Raptors had some trouble in the second quarter keeping their scoring going. Though Siakam got off to a strong start (with 11 points in the first), the second frame began with a lineup anchored by Anunoby — who is clearly still exploring the limits of his game. OG hit two 3s in the second (he went 3-for-3 in the half), and also continued to try muscling his way into the paint against all comers. Once he linked up with Siakam, the Raptors did have the power to deal with the pace and presences of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter did his damage with buckets, the former with passes — Dame had ten in the first half. Still the Raptors found themselves up six at the half, thanks to a patented 2-for-1 finished off by, hey now — it was Hood.
To begin the third, we should have seen the signs of trouble brewing for the Raptors. Aron Baynes was once again out there ostensibly to mix it up with Nurkic. To that point, other than missing all his threes, Baynes had been a neutral-ish presence — which is a best-case scenario (and yes, I’m perhaps being kind). He got a vicious dunk and a hook-shot in, but Baynes also had zero rebounds, which feels like it should be impossible. Anyway, in that first minute, Baynes mauled Nurkic, earning himself a flagrant foul. It wasn’t the only thing that happened to fire the Blazers up, but after that their defense snapped into the place. Over the next stretch, Portland would go on a 14-0 run — with Powell giving them their first lead since the opening quarter — to take control of the game. Of course, it helped that Toronto went 0-for-13 from three in that frame while shooting 18 percent from the field. Only Siakam showed much urgency at all (with six points of the team’s ten points), which is just comically not enough to get it done.
The fourth quarter opened with more Blazers action as Anfernee Simons took a turn carving up Toronto, growing their lead to as many as 11 points. As has been the case as of late though, the Raptors still tried to make a game of it. They hung in with a lineup VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, Chris Boucher, and Stanley Johnson, and did what they could to compete. Thanks to some forays to the rim by FVV, and, sure why not, a pair of triples from Johnson, the team made enough shots to hang around — but any push Toronto made could just as easily be erased by some clutch shot-making from the Blazers (McCollum did most of the damage this time).
A late jump-ball between Powell and VanVleet once again gave the Raptors a bit of hope. And then Powell missed two free throws that would have really, really iced the contest. Maybe this was just old muscle memory kicking in for Norm, a relunctance to be the one to bury the Raptors, but it didn’t really matter — especially after he hit his next two. The final seconds were drawn out by some close possession calls (both of which went against the Raptors) but it all amounted to the Raptors’ 12th loss in 13 tries, the dreams of anything but the lottery growing larger by the second. It’s been a weird season, and there’s not much comfort to be found in that.
The fun narrative of the night fizzled right off the bat, though.
Norm Powell bumped fists and shook hands with his teammates, trotted out to midcourt at Tampa’s Amalie Arena and took up his usual spot around the centre circle.
And then it hit him.
He was on the wrong side of the circle, before he quickly and a bit sheepishly got in the right place to make his second start with the Trail Blazers.
The Powell storyline took a bit of a hit early as he picked up two fouls in the first 4 1/2 minutes of the game and had to sit down before he could have any significant impact. He finished with 13 points in 27 minutes against his old team.
Gary Trent Jr. had six for Toronto and the game high from any player involved in Thursday’s deadline trade came from Rodney Hood, who had 13 points for the Raptors.
“He (Powell) gave a little look to the bench after one of those shots he made and I just looked at him. I thought he was looking at me; he said he wasn’t. I said ‘I didn’t trade you, man. I don’t know why you mad at me for,’” VanVleet said.
“Norm’s such an emotional guy, in a good way. He wears his heart on his sleeve and it was good to see him. Really weird playing against him, but obviously wish him nothing but the best going forward.”
The Raptors let a promising 74-point first half go for naught with one of their worst offensive quarters of the season in the third. They missed all 13 three-pointers they attempted, were just 4-for-22 from the field and had more turnovers (five) than baskets.
“I thought we just ran out of gas, man,” VanVleet said. “We were playing so hard, both ends of the floor … I thought they picked up their physicality a little bit and we didn’t get the whistle.
Once things started to go south, VanVleet said the bottom sort of dropped out.
“You could just see the swag and the spirit was just a little low from trying to contain those guys on the defensive end,” VanVleet said. “And then you run down and don’t get a call or two and then you run back, do that a few times and then you miss an open three, miss a layup, like it just snowballed a little bit there.”
Kyle Lowry was a last-second scratch with a sore right foot making a tough night against the Trail Blazers that much tougher.
And with both VanVleet and newcomer Gary Trent Jr. struggling to get a shot to drop for most of the night — VanVleet did find the range in the final quarter almost bringing the Raptors all the way back — Lowry’s absence was magnified.
The evening started on a positive note, though, with the Raptors busting out of the gate with a 41-point first quarter as Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Rodney Hood, who came to Toronto with Trent Jr. in that Norman Powell trade deadline deal, combined for 28 points to offset the other struggles.
At the half the Raptors had a season-high 74 points but followed that up with a season-worst third quarter. The Raptors missed all 13 three-pointers they attempted as the Trail Blazers began to pull away.
Defensively the focus and effectiveness remained for the Raptors even when the offence went stone cold. Portland only scored 23 points in the third quarter, but it was still enough to turn the game.
Powell was in early foul trouble, limiting him to just 27 minutes, and had a quiet night by his standards, scoring 13 points on just six shot attempts. He was on the wrong end of a poster, with much-maligned centre Aron Baynes dunking on him in the second quarter, and then missed two free throws late in the fourth – proceeding to tear the top of his new Blazers jersey out of frustration.
Even on an off night, he had a vintage Powell moment in the third quarter. Stealing the ball from Trent, the player he had just been traded for, the newest Trail Blazer went in for the dunk in transition – reminiscent of that memorable play from his first post-season run. On his way down the court he gave the Raptors’ bench a quick stare.
“I thought he was looking at me, but he said he wasn’t,” VanVleet joked. “I said ‘I didn’t trade you, man, I don’t know why you mad at me for.’ Norm’s such an emotional guy, in a good way. He wears his heart on his sleeve and it was good to see him.”
Powell admitted he was caught a bit off guard when he got the news on Thursday, even though he knew the trade was a possibility. He said he was able to hold it together, emotionally speaking, until the goodbyes started.
“When I ran into [assistant coach] Jama [Mahlalela], Jama was the first coach I was tied to when I got to Toronto, that’s when the emotions came out about what actually happened,” Powell said on Friday. “After that, I was very emotional seeing everybody.”
He’s landed in a good spot. In three days with the 28-18 Blazers – who are fifth in the Western Conference – Powell has won as many games (two) as he did in the previous 32 days with the 18-28 Raptors. On Sunday, he started alongside Portland’s dynamic backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Together, they’ll form one of the most lethal scoring trios in the NBA.
The new surroundings are going to take some getting used to, though. Powell was the Raptors’ second-longest tenured player and remains one of the franchise’s great success stories.
He’s had his ups and downs through the years, to be sure. He’s battled injuries, bounced between roles, and – until recently – performed inconsistently at times. However, through hard work, professionalism and a commitment to getting better, the 27-year-old has blossomed into one of the league’s very best and most efficient scorers at his position.
There are 28 games remaining in the season for the Raptors, and a team eight games under .500 presumably reduced its ceiling in the here and now by failing to address a glaring weakness at the centre position and losing individual shot creation. The team did trade Matt Thomas and Terence Davis for a couple of second-round picks, so it remains to be seen how one roster spot is filled. They are 1.5 games behind the 10th placed Chicago Bulls, a team that made a big splash with the acquisition of All-Star Nikola Vucevic from Orlando to pair alongside Zach LaVine. A team with Lowry will always compete, and the goal will be to secure a playoff spot and fight until you can’t fight no more.
But that is all now a precursor to what was always scripted to be the main event: the 2021 offseason. There is no Giannis sweepstakes but the future of the franchise hangs in the balance, nonetheless. After passing on the offers made for Lowry at this deadline, the front office will have to decide between trying to re-sign him or moving him to a contender in a sign-and-trade. There is also the possibility of him walking for nothing, which is when who they use their cap space on will be pivotal in evaluating the decision to balk in this moment.
How much money Trent Jr. commands will be another important factor, but who will be at the forefront of making these decisions will be the biggest question mark. After stating that there were plenty of names in and around the organization that needed to be taken care of at the end of last season, Ujiri stated the time to address his free agency and contract will come this summer.
“Raptors is inside here [points to his heart]—it’s in the blood,” Ujiri said. “This is what we live, this is what we do. I love doing it, I love it to death and today, it’s part of the spirit, it’s part of everything we are. You lose some, you win some, we are going to gain some sometimes, sometimes we are going to gain ground, sometimes we are going to lose ground, but at the end of the day I know this organization is a winning organization and it’s a winning culture we want to build.”
The can’s been kicked down the road and this nightmare of a season in Tampa will arrive at its merciful end. With the man who has been the heartbeat of the franchise for the better part of a decade, the Raptors leaned into their soul. Invariably, they will have to put emotion aside and take their shot, and that’s when we’ll know whether this was a make or miss.
“I’m blessed,” Flynn says over the phone following a rare chance to practice. “I’m in a good spot. The vets remind me this ain’t a normal year. They tell me not to expect this to be the NBA. I guess I got something to look forward to at least.”
Flynn agrees it only now feels like his season is really getting started.
It was about a week ago that Nurse made the decision to select two of his then underperforming bench players outside of his normal rotation of six or seven guys with a pledge to stick with them for two weeks and see if that would lead to something more permanent.
Flynn was one of those players. Paul Watson Jr. was the other.
The move wasn’t so much a promotion as it was an opportunity.
Flynn didn’t care one way or the other. It meant playing time and that’s all that he’s interested in right now.
“He didn’t say I was going to get these minutes,” Flynn said. “He just told me what to look for when I’m in the game, what he wants me to do. Just trying to come in and just compete, really. Be able to pick people up full court, just kind of wear them down. Just really do whatever the team needs right now.”
His assignment Friday night was to give that kind of attention to Cameron Payne, badgering the speedy one-time Raptor and basically taking him off his game.
“I thought he had a good assignment with Payne, and he picked him up, he pressured him, he turned him over, he ended up on Chris Paul, guarded him in the post pretty well there a couple times, he really fought him and battled,” Nurse praised. “He ran down a couple rebounds. I mean, I’ve just asked him to bring some energy, make sure we’re organized on (offence), get a little dirtier, get on the floor, knock some people around, do some things like that and he did those things. I think, it’s early days for him and he just needs the court time to kind of get his groove and feeling a little more comfortable out there getting used to the speed of the game and making some plays.”
Nurse’s decision to basically add him to the tail end of the rotation was one thing, but that conversation with the head coach laying out what he wanted and expected of Flynn made a big difference.
“I think it made it a little better,” Flynn said. “Just kind of having an idea of what they want to see. Obviously, you can’t go be a robot when you are out there, but just having a foundation of some of the things they are kind of looking for so when you are on the court, you can try to do those different things.”
But even before Flynn’s rookie season could have a sliver of consistency, there was one more surprise in store for him. He was one of the five Raptors who spent two weeks — including the week over the all-star break quarantined as part of the league’s health and safety protocols.
Flynn spent two weeks alone in the Tampa-area house he’s renting trying not to bounce off the walls.
“It was tough for sure,” Flynn said. “You couldn’t really do nothing. The hardest part for me was not being able to get in a gym. I mean just sitting at the house it made you go crazy a little bit. Just finding stuff to do was probably the hardest part knowing you couldn’t really go nowhere.”
Flynn got through that and now hopefully the season can take on a bit more of a normal progression because up until now, it’s been anything but normal.