It doesn’t take much to make an NBA playoff folk hero.
Take Norman Powell on April 26th, 2016, for example. His numbers in that pivotal Game 5 against Indiana were not sterling — 10 points, four boards, a pair of steals, four buckets on 11 attempts and a bricky 0-of-4 mark from three that in hindsight serves as a troubling bit of foreshadowing for Powell’s career arc. On paper, Powell was blah.
In memory, though, Powell is the first guy you think of when that Pacers series comes to mind — all thanks to one quarter, and more specifically, one play.
Powell has had a bad season, and his healthy new contract looms as a potential albatross if his play doesn’t do a 180 by next year. Yet it doesn’t matter. We watch sports for moments like the ones Powell provided when he picked off that sad sack Monta Ellis pass. Norm’s status with the team going forward will be dissected. The mythos of his post-season contributions will be attacked and challenged by those discussions. Through them all, it will still be cool — perhaps even advisable — to sport a Norman Powell Raptors jersey five, ten, twenty years from now. “Game 5” need be your only response to anyone who might question your choice to wear it. Norm’s place in Raptors history is chiseled and varnished.
Another opportunity to expand Raptors folklore is now upon us. Game 5 against the Wizards goes tonight, and if there’s one thing the Toronto sports scene produces without fail, it’s fucking wild Game 5s wrought with heroic origin stories. Wednesday’s pivotal tilt offers another canvass upon which the Raptors franchise can craft an enduring historical painting.
It will also be a test of Masai Ujiri’s roster-building ethos.
Games like tonight’s are why Masai Ujiri constructed the Raptors the way he did. No, he didn’t do it because having a 12-deep roster of good ass players gives you ho hum practical advantages like “lineup versatility” or “extra rest for stars.” Those are fine and dandy bonuses, no doubt. But the real reason for Masai’s patience in building depth is far grander than some pursuit of day-to-day convenience. By having more useful players on hand than any other team, Ujiri has maximized Toronto’s number of throws at the playoff folk hero dart board.
Considering the Raptors’ reliance upon secondary options during their season of change, there will almost certainly be an unlikely Raptors playoff legend birthed out of a Toronto win in Game 5. The only question is: who will it be?
Any discussion of heroic playoff exploits should begin with Powell. Not only did he correct the franchise’s careening course during the Indiana series in 2016, but Powell was also the machete that freed the Raptors from the jungle of limbs the Bucks’ stifled Toronto with in Games 1 through 3 in 2017. His insertion into the starting five — and subsequent 3-of-3 performance from deep in a weighty Game 4 — essentially solved that series, once again preventing a premature demolition of the franchise’s Kyle Lowry / DeMar DeRozan / Dwane Casey foundation.
Like in years past, Powell’s role with the team has been suppressed this season. What’s different is that most fans are okay with that reality this time around. There will be no clamoring for Powell to take over for the Raptors’ incumbent starting small forward this year.
Fans may not have a choice in the matter, though. OG Anunoby was visibly slowed by a rolled ankle in the second half of Game 4, and while he reportedly practiced with the team on Tuesday, we won’t know how effective or ineffective he may be rendered until Game 5 gets going. Is it far-fetched to envision a scene where OG’s ankle hampers him just enough to force Powell into action to cool down a hot-shooting Bradley Beal, and for Powell to repent for all the threes he clanged in the regular season with a barrage of makes from downtown? Hell no. Powell has saved the franchise’s ass in the playoffs in each of his first two seasons. Only a fool would discount him from doing it again. Legends aren’t easily erased from history.
Speaking of history — as is often the case, things that have happened in the past can gives us clues as to what will happen in the future. Could there be any parallel's between Raptors playoff stand-outs of old and those waiting to tell their own tales of high stakes heroism?
For instance, let’s revisit Amir Johnson in the spring of 2014. Johnson was the king of dependable understatedness. He was a long-time fan-favourite, and the team suffered mightily whenever his persistent ankle issues would keep him out. In Game 7 of first round against Brooklyn, Johnson had his moment — wobbly ankles and all.
Just 90 seconds into the series-decider, Johnson got tangled up setting a high screen, tumbling to the ground and favouring his right ankle. For a second, it looked like the God of Plus and Minus would have to leave the game, taking the Raptors’ hopes of a win along with him. He stuck it out though, and proceeded to pour in 12 first quarter points, finishing the evening with 20 points and 10 boards in 22 minutes before nobly fouling out in the late going. For portions of the game, Johnson was the saviour of the offense, whether through his pristine finishing or the five offensive boards he grabbed. It was a gummy game in which the Raptors attempted a very 2004 total of 13 threes, while the other four starters shot a combined 37.5 percent. Johnson’s nine field goals accounted for more than 25 percent of Toronto’s makes in the game. All of which came on a shaky lower body. Toronto lost that game, of course, but no bullshit Paul Pierce block can undo Johnson’s contributions that day. Without Amir, there is no chance for a last-second win.
That brings us to the player most closely resembling Johnson’s role and predicament in 2014. Fred VanVleet is, by all accounts, extremely injured. The Athletic’s Eric Koreen reported that VanVleet’s shoulder injury carries risk of re-aggravation for another six weeks. He’s also quietly — or perhaps not so quietly anymore — one of the Raptors’ most gifted plus/minus drivers. The bench steamrolls fools when he plays; the closing lineups are calmer and more identity-focused with the help of his spacing and steadiness. What if VanVleet braves the threat of Marcin Gortat’s shoulder-seeking screens and restores to the Raptors the values they misplaced during their second half meltdown in Game 4? Would the Raptors’ offer him the maximum allowable contract with a little under-the-table scratch thrown in during his post-game podium appearance? You could probably claim professional negligence on Ujiri’s part if he didn’t do just that.
VanVleet probably isn’t going to play tonight. But just in case he does, I’m drafting my inevitable and terrible “Willis VanReed” tweet now.
Maybe a hired mercenary will make good on his off-season promise with the series and season potentially hanging in the balance. If C.J. Miles the person wasn’t so maddeningly likable, C.J. Miles the inconsistent hired gun would probably earn the scorn typically directed to unreliable veterans like Terrence Ross or Patrick Patterson.
We’ve also seen glimpses of the playoff Magic an accurate Miles can conjure. Up by 5 in Game 2 was a comparatively low-leverage point in the series compared to what’s about to unfold tonight. But Miles’ late-clock, eye-gouging three over John Wall to slap down the Wizards’ attempted comeback stands as the most memorable shot of the series so far. A shot like that in a game like tonight’s? A release that substantial that could leave the ACC staff scrambling for extra towels.
Lucas Nogueira also looms. With or without playing, Bebe is entrenched as a Raptors oddity that will not soon be forgotten, regardless of his post-season triumphs or mishaps. But there’s still something about that lanky ass dude that perks the mood whenever he checks into a game. When he’s clicking, his energy seeps into the ball, infecting his teammates by contact as he slings the ball around the floor. His already folkloric 1-1-1 line from the Game 1 has him etched into future retellings of this series. Why couldn’t Bebe take on a more iconic role in the story?
Whether it’s an unlikely burst from Bebe, a long-awaited one from Miles, a redemptive return to past form for Powell, a galvanizing tale of perseverance-through-pain on VanVleet’s part, or some other unheralded player doing something else entirely, Raptors immortality will surely be earned by someone tonight if Toronto is going to claim a 3-2 lead in the series. Someone’s jersey is about to become forever infallible. The beauty of the tense, ever-changing playoff stage is that we have no unearthly clue who it will be.