In his second year with the Toronto Raptors, Norman Powell is an interesting case. He started the season behind Terrence Ross in the rotation, and team observers clamoured for him to get more minutes. His explosive drives, canny shot-making, and nosy defense make him easy to love — yet Norm’s difficult to watch when his axis falls unbalanced.
Powell’s been off since the Ross trade, and it’s one of a myriad of reasons why the Raptors have become anemic on the offensive end. Tonight, that script flipped — it was Powell’s livelihood that put Toronto over the top in one of the season’s most meaningful games. That, and the steady dominance of DeMar DeRozan, as the two shooting guards combined for 29 of the Raptors’ 35 fourth-quarter points in a 114-106 win over the Washington Wizards.
With the victory, the Raptors take a 2-1 season series win over Washington, obtain the tiebreaker for playoff seeding, and have won four of five games overall. They sit tied with the Wizards for the third seed now, 2.5 games back of Boston and six back of Cleveland.
Powell finished with 21 points and six rebounds, the leading scorer on a bench that paced the Raptors throughout the evening. Washington is an uber-talented team at the top, but their depth let them down against Toronto tonight — every Raptors bench player finished a +19 or better.
In the second quarter, it was the bench that gave Toronto their largest lead — 19 points — as a baby lineup of Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Norman Powell, P.J. Tucker, and Patrick Patterson put on a shooting and passing exhibition. Toronto’s bench didn’t miss a shot until their eighth try. Wright would finish with 9 points and four blocks (!!), including this one on Bradley Beal that led to a Powell breakout.
Given the stakes, it was a bit of a surprise to see the Raptors second unit drive the bus. What wasn’t surprising was the performance of two veteran starters — DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka.
DeRozan was a superstar again with 32 points, five assists, and a career-high 13 rebounds. As it has been all week, it was DeRozan who made the team’s biggest jumpers down the stretch, taking advantage of careless Washington switches to abuse a smaller Beal and slower Bojan Bogdonavic. It culminated in the game’s clinching shot, a three from two steps beyond the line.
Ibaka, meanwhile, was the steady hand (literally) through the first half, as he finished with 14 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks. His early swat on Marcin Gortat highlighted an impressive 20 minutes of Raptors defense.
When the Wizards starters came back into the game midway through the second, though, Washington got back into the game. A 17-4 run turned a double-digit Raptors lead into a 62-53 halftime lead. A slow start in the third quarter hurt Toronto too, as 17 turnovers overall allowed easy buckets for a Washington team that knows how to spread the floor in transition offense. The Raptors entered the fourth with a narrow 79-78 lead.
Then, it was Powell and DeRozan. The two shooting guards lighting it up. Powell dissected the defense with reckless abandon, driving to draw fouls and finishing at the rim. His dunk with two-and-a-half minutes left was the exclamation point — a vicious, wake you up, get off your couch stuff.
He followed that with a three-pointer — set up by DeRozan — to give the Raptors an eight point lead. DeRozan’s triple a minute later would seal it, and Toronto finished the home-and-home against Washington with a much-needed split.
Now, with no more matchups against each other, the three seed (or possibly second) comes down to the remaining schedules for Toronto and Washington. The Wizards are headed out for a monster west coast swing this week, playing five games in seven nights (though not, admittedly, against the finest the conference has to offer).
The Raptors, meanwhile, go on a four-game trip of their own. Beginning tomorrow in Milwaukee, they’ll go to New Orleans, Atlanta, and Miami before returning home to play Dallas on March 14.
For now, they’ll serenade their shooting guards, taking a cool 20 hours to celebrate before the late-season grind begins again.