Holly MacKenzie – Raptors.com
When the Toronto Raptors head to Milwaukee for Game 6, they are hoping to wrap up their first-round series with the Bucks. Thanks to a 118-93 Game 5 victory at home to take a 3-2 series lead, the Raptors want to treat Game 6 like a series deciding Game 7. They are in this position, largely, because of the play of sophomore swingman Norman Powell.
After an embarrassing blowout loss in Game 3, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said there would be adjustments. In Game 4, he switched up his starting lineup, inserting Norman Powell into the starting five. The move was a success as Powell’s presence and ability to handle the ball and create his own shot took pressure off DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, while also allowing the team to switch things defensively and dictate the pace. It also allowed the team to match Jonas Valanciunas’ minutes with Milwaukee’s Greg Monroe, who has emerged as a scoring threat off the bench for the Bucks.
Powell’s Game 4 performance was key in Toronto pulling away for the road win. His Game 5 performance was a career-one, as the 24-year-old scored a postseason career-high 25 points on 8-for-11 field goals. He was perfect from beyond the arc (4-for-4) and free throw line (5-for-5). Toronto was a +23 when Powell was on the floor. While Powell himself shrugs off talk about performing under pressure, his veteran teammates have plenty of praise for the poise he has shown in the postseason.
“Norm is a pesky player,” DeMarre Carroll said. “He plays hard, he works hard. He works at his craft every day. He understands being a professional, might play some games, might not play some games. It’s the growing pain of being a rookie and a second-year player. He understands that. The sky is the limit for the kid. He’s been playing really well for us. He had a big game for us last night and he understands that in this series, we need his athleticism, his driving to the basket, and that’s why he’s so good, because he understands, he’s a professional, and he don’t take a day for granted.”
For DeMar DeRozan, who often faces off against Powell in practice, the journey from second-round pick to D-League stints, to reserve, to playoff starter has been a joy to witness.
“It’s inspirational,” DeRozan said. “Any guy who can go second round, all the odds he had to face coming out of college — couldn’t shoot, undersized — anything you could put against Norm, he’s fighting against all odds. I’m a big fan of them type of players that stick through it, push, put in the work every single time, and it shows every time your name is called. For him to be up and down, not knowing if he’s going to play in a game, start a game, to step up in big moments like that is just a credit to the type of player he is.”
DeRozan was a lottery pick, selected ninth overall by Toronto in 2009. He was thrown into the fire immediately, a 20-year-old starter in his rookie season. Powell’s ability to stay calm as his role and minutes fluctuate has been impressive.
“People don’t understand how tough it can be to go games without playing,” DeRozan said. “You’re coming in every single morning, putting in work, putting in extra work. You may play a game, two games, three games. Not play. That’s tough. He played in one of the biggest moments last year [in Game 5 against Indiana] and helped us. It’s just a roller coaster ride. To have that strong mentality and push through it and still continue to be ready, and be able to show it up like he did, like last night winning us a game in a big way, stepping in, it’s inspirational to me.”
For Casey, the postseason is about trying to find whatever combination of five players are most effective on both ends of the floor. Although Powell didn’t have that big of a role in the first three games of the series, he’s earned his shot as he’s helped Toronto earn its own shot at closing out the series in Milwaukee.
“He works his behind off,” Casey said. “He stays after practice, he’s first one in the gym in the morning and he stayed ready. His turn came and he’s made the most of it. Much like last year. He’s a great example to the rest of the players to make sure they’re ready, prepared.”
Powell’s turn came and he took advantage, but it didn’t stop there. On Tuesday morning, following that brilliant Game 5 performance, there was one player at the practice facility before everyone else: Powell, preparing for Game 6.