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Powell and Leonard lead Clippers to win in Toronto homecoming

Toronto Raptors Los Angeles Clippers Gary Trent Jr. Kawhi Leonard Fred VanVleet - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Nearly two years later, Norman Powell still gets fired up talking about the trade that sent him from Toronto – where he spent the first five and a half years of his NBA career – to Portland.

In hindsight, and certainly from the outside looking in, it shouldn’t have been too hard to see coming. The Raptors’ 2020-21 season, which Masai Ujiri later referred to as “The Tampa Tank”, was starting to slip away from them at the trade deadline. Injuries, illness and their temporary relocation took their toll and the losses were piling up.

Gradually, they were moving on from their championship core and looking ahead to the future. Powell, a pending free agent, wasn’t part of that future, as it turned out.

“I was pretty shocked,” Powell, now a member of the Clippers, told TSN ahead of his long-awaited return to Toronto on Tuesday. “I know the team was [losing] but I thought we were pretty good if you look back to how we were playing before everyone got hit with COVID. I was playing so well that I thought I was going to be part [of the plan]. I thought they’d want to keep me to build that group that we always had. So, I was kinda shocked.”

With Powell due for a big raise in free agency, the Raptors flipped him for a younger and more controllable asset in Gary Trent Jr., who may find himself in a similar situation going into this year’s deadline. It’s part of the business, something you hear in professional sports all the time, but this was Powell’s first time experiencing it firsthand.

It’s been an eventful three years for Powell since playing his last game at Scotiabank Arena on Feb. 28, 2020, a couple weeks before the pandemic forced the NBA – and most of the world – to shut down. He was traded, signed a $90 million long-term contract to stay in Portland, and then was traded again six months later. By that point he was numb to the harsh realities of the business.

“The second one wasn’t bad at all,” he said. “It was like here we go again. Where to now?”

But that first trade, having to say goodbye to the only NBA club he had known and teammates he won a title with and grew close to, still stings. On Tuesday, he took it to his former team and played like it was personal.

“It was amazing,” Powell said after scoring 22 points and helping lead the Clippers to a 124-113 win over his former team in his return. “Definitely something I’ve been looking forward to, coming back to Toronto and playing in front of the fans again.”

The 29-year-old guard, who has settled into his role coming off the bench for one of the league’s deepest teams, checked in late in the opening quarter. After missing his first shot, a layup over Trent, he got hot early in the second frame.

First, he blew by the man he was traded for, driving on Trent and converting the layup. Then, he hit a floater over Chris Boucher. On a baseline inbounds play, Powell cut to the rim and scored on his ex-teammate and good friend Fred VanVleet.

It was hard not to get at least a bit nostalgic, with Kawhi Leonard also in the building and playing his first game in Toronto since he received his championship ring on Dec. 11, 2019.

At one point late in the first half, four Raptors players trapped Leonard in front of Toronto’s bench – the very same corner he made famous with his iconic series-winning shot against Philadelphia during the title run. While a couple of those defenders nearly slapped the ball away, Leonard wrestled it back and found Powell for an open three-pointer. On the following possession, Powell threw down a one-handed slam in transition, reminiscent of his memorable dunk in Game 5 of the 2016 first-round series against Indiana.

That’s when the game was still competitive. The Raptors got off to a hot start and were within four points at halftime before L.A. pulled away. In less than four third-quarter minutes, Powell scored half of his 22 points and put the Clippers up by 18. They led by as many as 23 points on the night, with only Pascal Siakam – the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week – and his 36 points providing any kind of resistance once Toronto’s shot making and defence went missing.

Powell couldn’t hide his emotion, watching a video tribute play on the big screen during the first timeout and getting a well deserved and long overdue standing ovation from the fans. On the other side of the coin, it was merely another Tuesday for Leonard. With the Clippers on a back-to-back and Leonard still working his way back from an ACL injury that cost him all of last season, the team gave him an option: play in Detroit on Monday or play in Toronto the following night.

“It was short conversation,” said Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue.

“It’s always great memories coming into this arena,” Leonard said afterwards. “I would rather give the fans in Toronto a chance to see me play again.”

But Leonard barely worked up a sweat on the way to recording 15 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in a very casual 35 minutes. He had his vintage Kawhi moments, like when he turned a bad pass from Scottie Barnes into a three-point play in transition late in the third quarter. Still, he was mostly going through the motions – remember, the regular season is just one long practice, after all.

His decision to leave the Raptors for Los Angeles after one memorable, title-winning season was motivated by his desire to play at home. But after joining forces with Paul George, he also believed the Clippers could be perennial contenders in the Western Conference.

So far, that’s not how things have played out. His first season in L.A. ended in playoff disappointment. The second ended with his injury, which also cost him his third. This season got off to a rocky start, with Leonard missing 19 of the first 24 games and the Clippers going 14-13 to open the campaign. Since then, they’ve won seven of nine games and are starting to look the part.

This is the deepest team they’ve had, with Powell and the resurgent John Wall leading a loaded bench unit. Even with Leonard having an off night and Wall sitting out for rest, four Clippers players scored 20 or more points, led by 23 apiece from George and Ivica Zubac, who also grabbed 16 rebounds and dominated the undersized Raptors in the paint.

But when he wants to, Leonard is beginning to look like Leonard again, and that’s basically what it comes down to. If he’s even relatively healthy in April, May and June, that guy can take you a long way, as the Raptors know well. More and more, the Clippers are looking like a team that’s gearing up to make a long run.

“I still think we have a ceiling that we haven’t hit yet,” said Powell, a San Diego native who was thrilled to land with the Clippers last season and play close to family and friends. “I think were still probably around 65-70 per cent of how good we can be. It’s just a matter of everybody getting used to the rotations and guys finally getting healthy, but I think we have what it takes to be one of the last teams standing.”

As for the Raptors, who knows? They recently bounced back from a six-game losing streak – their longest since the end of that Tampa season – with a pair of impressive road wins over a couple of the league’s hottest teams in New York and Cleveland. As Nick Nurse likes to point out, four of their six straight losses came down to the final possessions and most of them came without multiple rotation players in the lineup. Still, some of their reoccurring issues – mainly poor shooting and defensive lapses – resurfaced again on Tuesday night.

Although VanVleet left the Clippers game after tweaking his lower back in the first half, the hope is that this team is finally nearing full health. Precious Achiuwa, who’s been out since early November with an ankle injury, could be back as early as this week. The Raptors believe they’re better than their 15-19 record. Now would be the time to show it, with eight of their next nine games coming at home, albeit against some very good teams.

In addition to Leonard’s obvious legacy, bringing a championship to the city and country, he also left a lasting impact on the team and its young vets, something that’s come in handy through the ups and downs of this season. In him, they saw what it meant to truly remain level-headed; never getting too high or too low.

“We had a great example of that with Kawhi,” Siakam said earlier in the campaign. “Nothing really fazed him, he was just focused on his goals and his goal was winning. It didn’t matter if he shot [poorly] or whatever, or had a good game, he had the same mentality.”

Even after all this time, you can also find Powell’s DNA on this Raptors team. For a franchise the boasts the unlikely success stories of VanVleet, Siakam and Boucher, among others, Powell was one of its very first. He came in as a second-round pick in 2015 and, despite setbacks, injuries and an ever-changing role, he turned himself into one of the league’s best and most efficient scorers at his position. It’s a credit to his relentless work ethic, self-belief and approach to the game – things that rubbed off on the guys he came up with.

“He was like the first guy I found who matched my drive and my work ethic and my competitiveness,” said VanVleet, who still trains with Powell during the offseason. “We had to stop playing one-on-one after a while because it was getting too crazy. That’s what I’ll always remember about Norm.”

While he always seemed to play better as a starter than he did as a reserve in Toronto, Powell is thriving in his role as L.A.’s sixth man. After a slow start to the season, the eight-year vet is averaging 18.2 points over his last 15 games – more than any other player off the bench over that span (Trent is fourth). He’s doing it in less than 25 minutes per contest while shooting 51 per cent from the field and hitting 44 per cent of his three-point attempts.

“So much has gone on,” Powell said, looking back at these past three years. ”I feel like the mental headspace of trying to take it all in and still go out there and perform and get adjusted to the different organizations and the different playing styles and different teammates, coaching, moving, it’s such a big thing. But I think I’ve done a pretty good job of managing it, taking it in stride, just living one day at a time and handling things that are in front of me. Not thinking about the past or what the future looks like, but just staying in the moment and appreciating everything that I have because things can change so quickly.”

Clearly, he wasn’t lacking for motivation on Tuesday.