Mama said there’d be nights like this, to everyone but Norman Powell.
The Raptors had played the Orlando Magic twice already this season, and with neither game being particularly memorable — save for the sweet retro jerseys Toronto wore on the second occasion — it seemed as though both teams were intent on making Friday night’s game as forgettable as possible.
Both teams shot under 40 percent from the field and under 30 percent from three for the game. It was a thorough exhibition in futility, and on a night where Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet combined to shoot 11-for-42, Toronto probably should have lost.
The theme of the Raptors in the absence of Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, though, has been to find production from unlikely sources. Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher have all played terrific supporting roles in helping Toronto to an 8-2 record over the past 10 games, but this game needed a hero, someone to take on a starring role. Enter, Norman Powell.
Scoring a career-high 33 points on just 18 shots, Powell was a breath of fresh air in a game where the quality index would put the league on high alert. Toronto looked incredibly laboured when trying to create 5-on-5, but every time the play ended with the ball in the former UCLA guard’s hands, the results were overwhelmingly positive considering what was happening around him.
After the Magic stretched their lead to 11 early in the third quarter, Powell was in the zone. Aaron Gordon had received a technical foul for hanging on the rim after a dunk, and Powell went on to hit the free-throw. He knocked down three straight triples around a Khem Birch mid-range jumper, pulling the Raptors within three. He picked off Jonathan Isaac, stormed down the court and with Markelle Fultz looking to give him no chance of finishing, Powell flipped one up without even looking at the rim. Count it, and the foul.
By the end of the third quarter, Powell had added 19 points to his tally to the Magic’s 12. He added seven more in the fourth quarter, and it was all gravy after the damage inflicted in the third.
As injury after injury continues to plague this Raptors team, head coach Nick Nurse’s mentality hasn’t wavered. Next man up, injury to one is opportunity to another, no excuses.
When Lowry sustained a thumb injury against the New Orleans Pelicans, Powell was going to need to deliver his team something he has struggled with for four seasons prior: consistency. He wanted the starting two-guard job entering training camp, but Fred VanVleet got the first look and grabbed his opportunity with both hands. On the flip side, Powell looked lost, scoring in double-digits just once through the first seven games.
At his best, Powell has been lightning in a bottle, electrifying his team and Toronto crowds in playoff series against the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks. But far too often, the bottle has been empty. On most nights, Powell is anonymous and that’s why Nurse felt strongly enough to call out his lack of consistency after a hot shooting night in Dallas.
“I wish we could pencil him in for about 16 each night, rather than 26 one and 0 the next,” Nurse said. “21 and 4, or whatever. But he’s certainly, he’s capable.”
Before this season, Powell had a career-best streak of six games in double-digits. Just when the team has come to expect a certain level from him, he has disappeared. But now, with no one to seriously look over his shoulder toward, Powell has managed double-digits in nine of his last 11 games. In the last seven games, the 26-year-old is averaging 18.3 points while shooting 20-of-43 from beyond the arc in just over 31 minutes. It would certainly be nice if he could round out his game with more rebounds and assists — he had a combined total of one in that department against Orlando — but if he can solidify his scoring as a dependable option and understand exactly how and where his points are going to come from, that’s a step the team has been waiting for and will gladly take at this point.
Is this just an extended hot streak? Possibly. But the real challenge that awaits Powell is how he fares off the bench. Both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka are expected to be back soon, even as immediately as the next game on Sunday against the Utah Jazz, which forces Powell to adjust to coming in cold off the bench, once again, as well as fitting in with a bench unit that has built its own rhythm over the past three weeks.
That bench will gladly take what Powell is currently offering, though. It’s a unit that’s smothering defensively and unselfish offensively, but needs a wildcard like Powell who can bail them out of tough situations.
The bailout and the wildcard are two characteristics that have become synonymous with Powell’s career, and ironically, it’s the ability to be that on a nightly basis for this team that will make him most impactful.
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