They had been in one another’s orbits during three consecutive years of playoff battles between Cleveland and Toronto. They had mutual NBA friends. And during the NBA’s 2020 bubble, they had shared a conversation about passing when the Clippers assistant pulled aside the Toronto guard.
There was a familiarity between Tyronn Lue and Norman Powell when they joined forces last season with the Clippers, but being an acquaintance of someone is not the same as being coached by them. As soon as Powell arrived via trade from Portland, their time to learn how to work together was cut unexpectedly short by a foot injury that cost Powell two months.
Deepening their relationship would have to wait until the offseason, in Las Vegas, where both have homes. A maniacal worker, Powell began his summer workouts as early as 6 a.m., and he tried persuading Lue to stop by, but the coach is not an early riser. And so the two often met at a different spot: Lue’s favorite craps table at his favorite high-rise casino along the city’s famed strip.
Powell liked to enter the casino during the early evening to see whether the coach was playing. If he spotted him near the table’s end, where a crowd usually formed around Lue, Powell would either join Lue in the game or a conversation while the coach played.
“T-Lue is a light guy, it wasn’t super deep or trying to figure out how the next year would go, but talking here and there and seeing him in Vegas, hanging out with him, building more of a friendship and bond away from basketball, that’s how I saw it, and enjoyed it,” Powell said.
Taking on Powell could have been read as a gamble — selling a player who acted as a primary scorer in Portland on coming off the bench to support Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, at a hefty cost to the team’s tax bill. On Saturday, the one-year anniversary of his trade, Powell continued to show why it has paid off.
The 6-foot-3 guard from San Diego Lincoln High and UCLA scored 24 points in an overtime win against New York, his right-handed dunk over Knicks forward Julius Randle punctuating a stretch of play that has seen Powell turn into the kind of offensive force the Clippers hoped they were getting one year ago.
Since a rocky shooting stretch to open the season, confusion over his role as it alternated between starter and reserve, followed by a late-November groin injury that sidelined him 10 games just as he’d built momentum, Powell has settled into a rhythm that will see him contend for the NBA’s sixth man of the year honor. Since returning from injury in late December, Powell has made 46% of his three-pointers and 51% of his shots overall while averaging 18.6 points, the highest average of any reserve guard in that span.
Powell, teammate Leonard said, has “won a lot of games for us.”
“Obviously I was excited coming here and everything that comes with being back in L.A. and being part of the team,” Powell said. “Honestly, I didn’t even really think about it being a year [since the trade] but it’s been a fun year being a part of the organization and being part of the guys and getting more comfortable and just helping the team.”
Well before Lue coached him, he knew Powell could score. What he has learned this season about Powell is that he responds to a challenge.
“We’ve been challenging him the last month of making the right play and getting to the paint, creating shots for Nico [Batum] and Marcus [Morris] and Luke [Kennard] and guys like that when you get downhill,” Lue said. “He’s done a way better job of that.
“… Don’t just have 30 points and zero [assists] zero [rebounds]. Three or four assists, three or four rebounds. He’s evolved into a better player and being into our system and just understanding what we want from him every night and he’s been really good for us.”
The next step for Powell: not only impacting games as part of the reserves but while sharing the court with Leonard and George. Thursday’s fourth-quarter collapse during a loss to Milwaukee showed how much work there is to go. With the offense running entirely through Leonard and George, Powell didn’t shoot during the final 4 minutes 16 seconds.
“That’s on me,” Lue said. “Just got to figure out when those two are on the floor with Norm, just keeping him involved in the game.”
Though Powell paired with Leonard on Toronto’s 2019 championship team, that Raptors offense ran and moved, while the Clippers operate at a slower pace to identify and exploit mismatches, Leonard said. Getting the ball to Powell can add juice to a plodding offense because of the way he uses his athleticism to draw fouls, a unique skill on the roster. He has five games of at least nine free-throw attempts this season, one more than Leonard and two more than George, and in his past three games Powell has taken 24 free throws. When those three play, the Clippers still allow more points than they score on the season, yet own a free-throw rate in the league’s top 1%, according to the advanced statistics site Cleaning The Glass.
“On a lot of occasions, he’s instant offense,” George said. “And it takes a lot of pressure off of us, gives us a breather, gives us a break. When he’s going and he’s got the aggressive mindset, it changes our team and it changes the game.”
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