This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
Rashad Vaughn must have been having flashbacks on the bench.
As the story goes, the Toronto Raptors first became enamored with Norman Powell in a pre-draft workout in the lead-up to the 2015 NBA Draft, a workout that included Vaughn. Powell, who was already carrying a chip on his shoulder out of self-belief that he should be a top-25 pick rather than on the second-round bubble, came into Toronto and turned in one of the most tenacious workouts the coaching staff can remember, completely locking down the much more highly regarded UNLV product. He earned raves off the court, too, and tested well in terms of maturity and—most important for a rookie joining a winning team, according to some psychological personality profiling—ability to thrive and grow in a smaller role early on.
On draft night, the Milwaukee Bucks selected Vaughn 17th overall. As the draft ticked on, then-general manager Masai Ujiri worked the phones. The Bucks had debuted in the playoffs that spring and came up short in six games against the Chicago Bulls, but the foundation laid was encouraging enough that they were ready to begin putting bigger pieces in place for a substantial step forward (they'd later sign Greg Monroe, for example). And so fortune would have it that ahead of the No. 46 pick, Ujiri was able to send Grievis Vasquez to the Bucks for a future first-round pick and—after they selected him on Toronto's behalf—Powell.
"I remember his workout," head coach Dwane Casey said Monday. "I think it was on a Saturday morning. He came in and was just a very physical and tough kid. And we needed toughness. He's the kind of player that can play in a playoff-type game, just his mental toughness, his physical toughness."
Hey, Vasquez led the NBA in assists in 2012-13.
Whatever Milwaukee's logic, that trade is making a dramatic impact on the series between the two teams here nearly two years later. Vaughn is playing only garbage time for the Bucks and Vasquez left after a season, while the first-round pick Toronto acquired was used to help acquire Serge Ibaka, and the cap space unloading Vasquez helped make the signing of Cory Joseph (or DeMarre Carroll, depending on how you want to structure the dominoes) possible.
And, of course, there's Powell, who for the second season in a row now is fundamentally shifting a first-round playoff series despite having no assurances as to a role coming in.
On Saturday, Powell was moved into the starting lineup for a smaller, quicker look and responded with a pivotal performance that helped even the series. On Monday, he was even better, scoring a team-high 25 points and was absolutely electric in leading the Raptors to their most decisive victory not only of this series, but perhaps of their entire four-year postseason run.
Attacking aggressively from the weak side, dumping off to teammates in the paint, or making the correct next pass, Powell's offense really helped Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan navigate the aggressive, trapping defense of the Bucks. The ball movement that came from the right initial pass proved contagious, and the Raptors posted an uncharacteristic 28 assists (along with eight secondary assists and two free-throw assists).
That he hit all four of his 3-point attempts and is now 7-of-7 over the last two games almost seems like gravy—the Raptors need their long-range looks to drop, to be sure, but Powell's brought enough else to the table that perfect shooting almost seems like they're getting too much out of him. Despite a down shooting year that saw him hit just 32.4 percent of his threes, though, Powell has continued to work tirelessly on that shot, particularly from the corners, and he's catching fire at an opportune time.
The Bucks will now either have to account for his shooting and release some pressure on the Raptors' All-Stars, or continue to dare Powell, a player who played exactly zero minutes with the score within single-digits over the first three games of the series, to beat them.
At the heart of Powell's contributions lies a decisiveness that underscores an important confidence. The Raptors have a "0.5 rule" which is meant to get each player making quick decisions when they catch the ball. Within a beat, they should shoot, pass, or attack, and hesitation in those scenarios is death against the Bucks' speed and length. If there's anything that's certain about Powell's game through two seasons, it's that he won't lack for aggression and decisiveness, even as he's spent the time since the All-Star break struggling to adjust back to his ever-changing role.
"It's great. It takes the pressure off us," DeRozan said. "Norm did a great job of bringing the ball up being aggressive, getting to the basket, making the right plays. Just taking the pressure off us offensively to get a little more movement."
And of course, there's the defense, normally Powell's calling card. Khris Middleton has been sick, sure, but he's also shot 7-of-21 with five turnovers over the last two games, in large part thanks to Powell's speed and ability to fight through and around screens to stay tethered to his man. On Monday, Powell also had three deflections on defense and recovered three loose balls, and that type of energy now has the Raptors giving up just 89.1 points per-100 possessions in the series with Powell on the floor, the best mark of anyone with meaningful minutes on either team save for, somehow, Michael Beasley.
That Powell is contributing like this maybe shouldn't be surprising. It's what he's done in two years in Toronto, and it's even what he did in fighting from bench piece to star over four years at UCLA. Powell didn't want to go to the D-League last year, but he used it as an opportunity to make a case for playing time. He embraced the chance to play a bigger role at Summer League, one that paid off when he had to fill in DeRozan's shoes earlier this year. He's played, went back to the bench life, been called upon again, and while there have been understandable inconsistencies in his play at times, he's never left a doubt that he could be turned to in case of emergency.
For the second year in a row, Casey's done just that with a series on the brink, something they thought they'd be able to do dating back to that fateful workout.
"Most young kids would have crumbled with this rotation that he had," Casey said. "He started when DeMar DeRozan was out, he stayed ready, he worked his butt off with the coaches, stayed professional, stayed positive, and was ready when his number was called."
The spoils of two strong performances were on display Monday night. Powell got the usual treatment of being called "big time" by the other young players on the team, a sort of end-of-rotation game ball or rotating championship belt. Lucas Nogueira very earnestly pulled Powell aside for advice on how to stay ready like he has, something Nogueira's struggled with during his career. Lowry teased that Powell would have to answer all of the questions in his first career podium game, then made him sit in the middle and demanded more questions be thrown the sophomore's way.
It was difficult for even Powell to decline to smile, but when the stoic expression returned, it was right back to business. Powell doesn't want to "just be a player you can throw in," as great a luxury as that is for a team to have (let alone on a ludicrously cheap deal for next season). He's still hungry, even with fairly definitive proof now that he should have been selected much higher. That he wasn't is having a profound impact on yet another playoff series.
"I don't know the particulars of it," Casey said. "But he was a guy that we really wanted in that situation. I'm glad we got him."