Based on his play in the second and fourth quarters of Game Five alone, Toronto Raptors rookie Norman Powell should start in Game Six. The 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals were nice, but as head coach Dwane Casey likes to say, Powell is in there for his defense and the scoring is gravy, nice gravy, but gravy.
Powell was in the defensive group that held the Pacers to just nine fourth quarter points in Game Five as the Raptors snatched victory from the near certain jaws of defeat to take a 3-2 series advantage. He led his team in plus/minus for the third time in the playoffs with a +16 and is a team best average of +8.2, more than double Kyle Lowry’s +4.0 who holds down the second spot.
“He played well,” Lowry said. “The kid’s been doing well. He’s been doing this for the last month and a half, two months now. He’s been phenomenal throughout this whole season.”
Coach Casey hasn’t been trying to hide his rookie out there against the Pacers. Powell has often been the primary defender on the Pacers All-Star Paul George and the numbers in the playoffs speak for themselves. Toronto is winning with Powell on the court.
1. Powell +8.2
2. Lowry +4.0
3. Biyombo +2.2
4. Joseph +1.0
5. Scola +0.8
6. Patterson -1.4
7. Ross -1.8
8. Valanciunas -2.0
9. DeRozan -3.0
“The only thing I told him today when we were sitting on the bench is that you have to do one thing for all of us to be able to win this game,” Patrick Patterson said after Game Five. “We all have to do one thing and right now we just have to play defense. You’ve got Paul George who is an All-Star. You have to take one thing away from him.”
George scored two points in the fourth quarter of Game Five and Powell stole two balls intended for the Pacers All-Star. He took away more than just one thing and he brought some “gravy” to the game as well.
In Game Five Casey changed the starting lineup and shortened his bench in an attempt to shake the team out of a Game Four malaise that allowed the Pacers to tie the series. Luis Scola was a DNP-CD and Patterson started. The result was as disastrous as it was predictable.
Casey had attempted to use Patterson as a starter last season, but this very effective player off the bench never looked comfortable or effective as a starter. He tried again in preseason this year, but was forced to give up and insert the 35-year-old veteran Luis Scola into the starting unit.
Scola wasn’t giving Casey a lot as a starter in the playoffs, but he wasn’t hurting the team either. Unfortunately Patterson crashed and burned as a starter once again. He was a -15 in the first quarter and a -4 in the third quarter of Game Five.
“Pat was a -20,” Casey said. “I love him to death, but I don’t know if I took him out of his rhythm or whatever. We got to re-evaluate that.”
While Casey could go back to Scola, he has another option that just might give him the boost he’s looking for. Plus Patterson averaged a +3.5 coming off the bench in the first four games and that’s the kind of “rhythm” the Raptors need from him.
A starting unit of Lowry, DeRozan, Powell, Carroll and Valanciunas with Patterson, Joseph, Biyombo and Ross coming off the bench should give Casey the additional speed and quickness he needs to counter Pacers head coach Frank Vogel’s move to put the rookie Myles Turner in his starting unit and give the Raptors more options when defending George.
It would also add some toughness to the starting unit and in a series where the Pacers are quite literally trying to push the Raptors around at every opportunity, a boost in physical play off the start should be a good thing. Powell loves the physicality of the playoffs.
“I’m loving (the physicality),” Powell said. “It brings me back to my high school days, being physical, putting pressure and intensity into the game. It’s going to be a war out there and that’s how I look at it every time I step on the court. It’s going to be a battle you know, not to back down no matter who is in front of you.”
It can be tough for a coach to put a rookie in the starting lineup over a veteran, but sometimes the rookie has earned it and sometimes the rookie has what you need.