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The Blazers’ Future Hinges on a Question About Powell: Is This the New Norm?

Norman Powell’s explosive performance on Saturday was a remarkable about-face from the tertiary role he played to open the series.

Norm-an Pow-ell!

Clap. Clap. Clap Clap Clap.

Norm-an Pow-ell!

Clap. Clap. Clap Clap Clap.

Nearly 10,000 Trail Blazers fans serenaded Norman Powell in the closing moments of Portland’s 115-95 Game 4 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night.

Powell had done more than enough to merit the adoration of the largest Moda Center crowd in more than 15 months. The six-year veteran shooting guard scored 29 points on 15 field goal attempts while also playing a key role in holding Nuggets guard Michael Porter Jr. to only 3 points on three shots.

It was exactly the kind of playoff series-altering performance that president of basketball operations Neil Olshey was hoping for when he acquired Powell from the Toronto Raptors in the final weeks of the regular season.

The Blazers’ playoff prospects—and perhaps the direction of the the franchise—hinge on whether it is repeated.

Adjustments

Powell’s explosive performance on Saturday was a remarkable about-face from the tertiary role he played to open the series. Stormin’ Norman struggled to get involved in the Blazers’ offense during the first three games, often hopelessly calling for the ball from the weak side as teammates forced up less-than-ideal shots. At times it felt like Portland’s primary playmakers and coaching staff had forgotten that Powell packs a bit more scoring punch than, say, Maurice Harkless or Al-Farouq Aminu.

During Game 4, however, the Blazers made a point of adjusting to better highlight Powell’s skills from the first jump ball. Head coach Terry Stotts had Powell curling off picks to initiate the offense and setting screens to punish the Nuggets for trapping Damian Lillard. The other Blazers were even finding Powell for open jumpers when the defense scrambled.

After the game, Stotts acknowledged that the Blazers offense had done a better job at incorporating Powell for the first time in the series: “I thought we made good reads in just our flow, making the right decisions and passing. He was the beneficiary of it. He hasn’t really shot the 3 well in the first three games.”

Powell also added aggressive toughness that the Blazers sorely lacked in a disappointing Game 3 loss. In contrast to CJ McCollum, who prefers to out-dance his opponents in the midrange, or Damian Lillard, who’s always looking for the deeeep 3-point bomb, Powell does not shy away from charging headlong at bigger defenders. In one of the most symbolic plays of the night, Powell beat the Nuggets defense up the court, collected an outlet pass from Lillard, and scored at the rim over the much larger Nikola Jokic:


You earned that flex, Norm.

Powell’s aggression had a tangible impact on his team’s overall play: The Blazers scored 20 fast-break points and won the points-in-the-paint battle 46-38. Those are backbreaking statistical advantages for a team that lives and dies by the 3-pointer and leans on an infamously conservative defense.

And as if 29 points weren’t enough, Powell did his part to clamp down on the Nuggets’ second-best offensive player. Powell spent a good chunk of the first half draped all over Porter Jr., the physical defense clearly bothering Denver’s No. 2 scorer. Powell used quick hands and feet to further negate Porter’s half-foot size advantage and repeatedly poke the ball away:

Porter struggled to do much of anything, a critical failure for the Nuggets on an afternoon when Jokic also failed to find his shot. It was a truly impressive two-way performance by Powell, a third guard who spends much of his time playing out of position at small forward.

Making up for lost time

In his 27 regular season games with the Blazers, Powell showed flashes of the potential that emerged with the Raptors over the past two seasons. Those flashes, however, were not consistently apparent. Powell would follow every 20-plus-point game with a lackluster 12-point effort on mediocre shooting.

The consequence: nearly across the board stagnation or decline in counting stats and advanced stats, relative to his numbers with the Raptors.

Powell wasn’t necessarily being misused with the Blazers, but his occasional anonymity justifiably raised questions whether there was room for him in the same starting lineup as Lillard and McCollum.

Concerns about Powell’s role are especially relevant given his pending free agent status—Norm can choose any team he wants this summer. As a team operating far over the NBA’s salary cap line, the Blazers will not be able to replace Powell if he does sign elsewhere. Convincing Norm to stay in Portland will be Olshey’s absolute highest priority this summer.

With luck, Moda Center’s adulation for Powell on Saturday foretold multiple positive outcomes. Powell’s emergence could be the deciding factor that helps the Blazers continue to light up the Nuggets while also proving there is room for his offense in the same starting lineup as Lillard and McCollum. If Game 4 becomes the new norm in Portland, Blazermaniacs will hopefully enjoy at least one playoff series victory, as well as a long-term re-signing of a crucial free agent this summer.