TORONTO – Nursing a three-point lead with just over a minute remaining in overtime against the Dallas Mavericks, the Toronto Raptors played the odds on defence.
They hung DeMar DeRozan on Dwight Powell to ensure Pascal Siakam defended Harrison Barnes while Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet were left to tend to Dennis Smith Jr. and Yogi Ferrell.
DeRozan’s instructions were to double Barnes when needed, and be ready to help on dribble penetration. Smith Jr. was at the top of the arc when he got a step on Delon Wright, and the rookie made the wise decision to swing it to Powell left-elbow extended.
Powell’s attempted just one 3-pointer per game this season and knocked down less than 30 per cent of them. This lone attempt for the game, though, was money.
“He brings an unusual skill to the five position, because not only is he a great roller and finisher, he’s a much improved shooter,” clairvoyant Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said before the game. “He’s hitting more threes and working on getting better and better at that.”
Yogi Ferrell, backup point guard for the Mavericks has spent both last and this season with the team, and has noticed Powell’s willingness to be more assertive on the offensive end.
“He’s a lot more confident,” Ferrell told North Pole Hoops. “He knows how he’s effective on the court. His swagger, his confidence on the court is up, and he’s showing a little more force offensively.”
That swag showed not just on the three. When the Mavs were desperately trying to hold off the Raptors’ surge in regulation, Powell quieted the crowd with a quick drive and finish to push their lead to four.
Then, with the game hanging in the balance — tied at 106 — with under 10 seconds remaining, Powell contested Ibaka’s potential game-winning runner, before swatting the ball away with authority from Ibaka’s hands after he got the offensive rebound to send the game into overtime.
Powell walks into the gym at about eight in the morning on game days. He goes through shooting drills among other things before the team’s shootaround. He’s big on rituals since it’s a big part of his process to improve.
There are a couple of reasons Powell keeps his head down and works. The first is obvious, future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki.
“It’s been a great learning experience,” Powell said. “First and foremost, just about work ethic, the guy’s been in the league 20 years and is still the first in the gym, the last one to leave, takes care of his body at a whole other level.
He’s obviously dedicated to his craft, but he’s still competitive and wants to improve which is a challenge to everyone who sees him because you have to at least work at that level if not harder because you have so much more to improve on.”
The other reason is because he was forced to learn early on that everything you get in the NBA is earned. He was selected by the Charlotte Hornets with the 45th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft but was soon traded along with Brendan Haywood to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Scotty Hopson and cash considerations.
After some time with the Cavaliers’ summer league squad, he was then traded to the Boston Celtics where he spent most of his time with their G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.
By December of his rookie season, he was traded to Dallas with Rajon Rondo for Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, a 2015 first-round pick and 2016 second-round pick.
“I don’t think you ever feel settled in the league,” Powell has learned. “There’s a lot of work to be done every day regardless of what year you’re in, whether you’re playing 30 minutes a night or coming off the bench or inactive. The second you stop working, people take notice and opportunities get taken away. I’m still working like I did when I first got traded.”
One thing that has worked tremendously well for the Mavericks this season is when they’ve gone with two point guards for their guard spots and Powell at centre.
While Devin Harris was around, he combined with Ferrell, J.J. Barea, Dirk Nowitzki and Powell to post a 93.9 defensive rating and a plus-19.4 net rating overall. A lineup of Ferrell-Smith Jr.-Wesley Matthews-Harrison Barnes-Powell posted a 101.1 defensive rating and plus-12.6 net rating.
Now, with Harris having been traded to Denver and Matthews out for the season with a fracture to his right fibula, Carlisle has turned to a a lineup of Barea-Farrell-McDermott-Nowitzki-Powell and they’ve posted an incredible 126.7 offensive rating to be plus-24 overall.
“I think the biggest thing is we’re able to defend a little better,” Ferrell said. “Sometimes we’re even able to switch 1 through 5 because Dwight can defend guards, get a hand up on them, make the shot difficult. Then, there’s our ability to get up and down the court, run a lot faster, Dwight is one of the best guys at catching lobs in this league, the way he sets screens and rolls and he puts pressure on the defence to try and tag them.”
These have mostly been bench units, but Powell has generally been quite effective as the starting centre for the Mavericks, averaging 14.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.1 steals while shooting 68.4 per cent from the field.
While the Mavericks are headed for the lottery and haven’t had the success they were once synonymous with during the Dirk era, Powell has given them every reason to believe he can be a core piece for them going forward.
“His progress has been really good and he’s gotten better in all areas,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said before the game. “The thing he brings on a consistent basis is a high level of energy, enthusiasm and force… He’s one of my favourite guys because he’s a total team guy. Canadian basketball has got to be excited to have him in the hopper because he’s a winner.”