After a disappointing start to their series with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors needed a change. Head coach Dwane Casey made a surprise move, inserting swingman Norman Powell into the starting lineup in favor of center Jonas Valanciunas.
In doing so, Casey essentially made power forward Serge Ibaka his starting center. Additionally, the Raptors became more athletic and better capable of handling the Bucks’ length.
In the last two games, the Raptors have looked like a three seed. Toronto has grabbed a 3-2 series lead and won its last two games by double digits. Powell has played a big role.
"There’s a lot at stake,” Powell said. “It was just being ready and going in there and playing the best, making an impact on both sides of the ball, trusting in the work that I put in. I’m not worried about the stage, I’m [focused on] the confidence that I have in myself and helping my team.”
In a dominating 118-93 win over Milwaukee, Toronto received a team-high 25 points from Powell. The UCLA product made all four of his three-point attempts and went 8-for-11 from the field. He outscored DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Casey used multiple terms to describe Powell, including “spark plug” and “X-factor.” It’s understandable that the Bucks would send all of their defensive attention to Toronto’s heralded backcourt, leaving Powell open in most instances. He’s made the most of that opportunity.
"They move the ball better with [Powell] in the game," Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon said. "They can spread the floor better, everybody can attack, everybody can make plays."
Powell is no stranger to starting. He has filled in ably for DeMarre Carroll for two seasons now when the veteran has dealt with injuries. Casey’s latest lineup has a new wrinkle, mirroring the one that has made the Golden State Warriors so successful. In Toronto’s iteration, Ibaka plays the role of Draymond Green while the floor is spaced with shooters.
So far, in a small sample size, the strategy has worked.
"That’s a true professional right there," DeRozan said. "A guy, still young but understands whenever his name is called, he’s ready. [Powell’s] one guy that’s in the gym every single morning, you walk in here, he’s getting his work in and it shows when he gets put in the situation."
The onus is now on Bucks head coach Jason Kidd to make an adjustment after losing two straight games. While the starting lineup has remained steady for some time now, Kidd has experimented with various players off his bench. On Monday night, Kidd relied on seven players for the bulk of the game’s minutes. He may need to dust off a Michael Beasley or John Henson to try and instill the same kind of spark that Powell has given the Raptors.