At this point in the year, it’s hard to get up for a game against the Orlando Magic. Spring weather is breaking through outside, Toronto all but has home court locked up in the first round, and the machinations of the greater playoff race are for more interesting than a blowout win over one of the league’s worst teams.
The Raptors aren’t mysterious. Without Kyle Lowry, they’ve been good enough to ride a defense-first approach to a 12-5 record since the All-Star break; they’re good but not great. And while it’d be nice to see Lowry get some games in alongside Serge Ibaka and P.J Tucker before the playoffs, it’s easy to see how his playmaking and shooting might elevate the Raptors to borderline great territory. There isn’t much left to learn. Instead of fretting over the macro, late March leaves you looking for incremental signs of growth from the team, usually in the form of development from players that could help this year’s playoff run, or fill a more pronounced role in years to come.
Norman Powell and Delon Wright are two of those attention-holding players.
Once the Raptors hit peak health and the rotation endures it’s inevitable playoff downsizing, it’s unclear exactly how much Toronto’s former Summer League killers will factor in. P.J. Tucker has helped transform the Raptors’ defense, and figures to be the first wing off the bench in mid-April and beyond. Wright, meanwhile, is the backup to the backup of one of the league’s top point guards. A healthy Lowry will mean a sparingly-used Wright.
In Monday’s business-like 131-112 win over the putrid Orlando Magic, Powell and Wright provided Raptors fans with a few of those little glimmers of future promise that keep the late-season slog interesting.
With Terrence Ross making his return to Toronto, Powell illustrated exactly why the team viewed the former as an expendable asset.
In 24 minutes occupying Ross’ old role off the bench, Powell dropped 16 points on a clean 6-of-11 from the field and a cleaner 4-of-6 from three. The success from deep was long-awaited and necessary. Since the All-Star break, Powell has hit just 29.6 percent of his looks from outside as the third-highest volume three-point shooter on the roster. His issues have contributed to the Raptors shooting a piddly 34.1 percent from three over the last 17 games.
Perhaps even more encouraging than the threes were the handful of passes Powell made in spots where he almost never dishes it off. He dropped two assists to a rolling Jakob Poeltl during the second unit’s strong second-quarter stint, and also initiated a swing that created a DeMar DeRozan long two with a smooth drive and kick to the corner.
It’s hard to criticize a second-year, second-rounder with knack for screaming to the rim too much, but Powell can be guilty at times of being single-minded when he launches an attack on the basket. When he can’t connect with his left hand, Powell is generally going to miss or turn the ball over. Those few deft passes against the Magic offered a forecast of what a more refined and cerebral Powell might look like.
In stark contrast to Powell, patiently probing is Wright’s specialty. And unlike his reserve back court partner, he’s skittish when he and the rim are in close quarters. That timidity breeds a willingness to pass out of traffic — and dammit if Wright isn’t already an advanced passer.
That was one of three assists Wright fired Powell’s way on Monday, all of which were dart-like. Powell deserves credit for knocking them down, but Wright created the open pastures for him to work within.
A rare bit of Wright aggressiveness stood out at the end of the third quarter. A lazy finish to the frame saw the Magic draw to within five points with 12.4 seconds left to play. A DeRozan bucket followed by a Wright steal on the in-bound and three put the Raptors up 10 heading into the fourth. Orlando never threatened again.
Unfortunately for Powell and Wright, their efforts — particularly on offense — might go unnoticed by Dwane Casey. It was an odd scene after the game. Casey was clearly not amused by the back-and-forth, defense-second tenor of the game.
“We’ll take the win but we can’t be happy with our defensive performance,” said Casey. “We scored 59 percent from the field, offense is not the problem.”
Asked about the strong point guard play of Wright and Cory Joseph, who set a career high with 13 assists, Casey was again unimpressed.
“We did okay offensively,” he said. “All I saw was Elfrid Payton sashaying to the rim, getting to the basket.”
On Norman Powell’s improved passing?
“Offensively he was fine. He had what, 16 points, had some good kick-outs, didn’t turn it over. But our attention to detail defensively wasn’t what it should be tonight.”
It’s completely understandable for Casey to fixate on Monday’s lackadaisical defense in the face of a 131 point outburst. He’s right — Elfrid Payton was getting whatever he wanted.
This is the mode the Raptors coaching staff should be in as the Raptors close out the string with home court advantage in round one essentially locked up and the fluid seeding situation above them out of their control. Surrendering a 107.4 Offensive Rating to teams of Orlando’s ilk, no matter how inconsequential, isn’t the way any team wants to close out the season.
Upon review of the game tape, however, Casey should find some solace in the efforts of Powell and Wright against the Magic. Maybe the defense wasn’t locked in from start-to-finish, but there were still plenty of sequences during which the pair’s collective talent popped, and Raptors fans caught a glimpse of a perhaps not-so-distant future.
What did you think of tonight’s win?