TORONTO â€” Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were delighted to yield the spotlight to Norman Powell for a night.
Powell scored a career playoff-high 25 points on an array of dunks and long bombs to lift the Raptors to a 118-93 blowout of the Milwaukee Bucks. Now the Raptors head back to Milwaukee for Thursday’s Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead, and within one win from the Eastern Conference semifinal.
In the moments after the victory, Lowry insisted Powell sit centre-table at the press-conference podium. He gleefully teased Powell, saying in a sing-song voice, “You’re going to the podium.”
On a night that Lowry was fighting a bad back, and DeRozan was more of a playmaker than scorer, the 23-year-old Powell was a “spark plug,” said coach Dwane Casey.
“He’s the X factor,” Casey said. “So many times you’re so concerned about DeMar and Kyle, rightfully so, that that next spark plug, that next guy, the next instigator is the guy. Is this series, he’s been the X factor.
“Next game it might be a different story but he’s done an excellent job of playing off those two and taking what the game’s giving him, whether it’s the three-point shot or attack to the basket.”
Powell led six Raptors in double figures. Serge Ibaka finished with 19 points, DeRozan added 18, and Lowry â€” whose back was so tight that when he wasn’t on the court, he was lying on his back in front of the bench â€” finished with 16 points and 10 assists.
Casey said you’d have to “take an arm and a leg off (Lowry) before you keep him from playing.”
“I’m all right,” Lowry said afterward. “This is the playoffs. The opportunity to play, enjoy my teammates, and a great game, be out there with my guys. There’s nothing like that. I’m going to take the bumps and bruises to be able to go on the floor and be with our guys. Especially with the way Norm played tonight, it made it way more worth it.”
DeMarre Carroll chipped in with 12 points, while Cory Joseph had 10. Toronto’s 28 assists were a franchise record for the post-season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 30 points and nine rebounds.
The victory was Toronto’s most decisive of these playoffs. Two nights after it worked so well in Game 4 in Milwaukee, Casey started Powell over Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors took the lead for good less than five minutes after tipoff, and then â€” humming on offence and solid on defence â€” they built a 19-point first-half lead and roared into the fourth quarter with a 90-73 advantage.
The Bucks would come no closer than 14 points in a fourth quarter that belonged to Toronto, and with 4:42 to play, Powell muscled around Antetokounmpo and over Thon Maker for an empathic dunk, the punctuation mark on a dominant night for the young Raptor, who was drafted 46th overall in 2015 â€” by the Bucks â€” then subsequently traded to Toronto for Greivis Vasquez.
When Casey emptied his bench in the final two minutes, the Air Canada Centre crowd broke into a chant of “Raps in six!”
Powell was a perfect 4-for-4 from three-point range, and credited the countless hours of practice. He came in early in the morning, stayed late at night, and pored over film of three-point specialists like Kyle Korver and Larry Bird.
“It’s just constant reps day in and day out, trying to tweak it here and there, and finding what’s most comfortable for me, and shooting with confidence,” Powell said. “I put up so many shots before the game and on the off days, it’s just shooting with confidence and trusting in the work.”
The Raptors shot a sizzling 58 per cent on the night, and 44 per cent from three-point range.
“We’re lacking the experience of what’s coming,” coach Jason Kidd said of his young Bucks team. “We can talk about it, but we have to go through that process, we have to walk through that door. For a lot of these guys, they’ve never seen this. This team has been to the Eastern Conference finals, they’ve been there. Their coach has seen this before.”
The athletic Powell made his presence known from the tipoff. Early in the first quarter, he stole the ball off Antetokounmpo, was wrapped up by Malcolm Brogdon but managed to get the shot off for a three-point play. His three-pointer capped a 17-0 run that gave the Raptors a 15-point lead. Toronto took a 31-20 advantage into the second quarter.
A jump shot from Patrick Patterson put Toronto up by 19 points midway through the second, but the Bucks â€” shooting 67 per cent in the quarter â€” clawed their way to within seven. The Raptors went into the halftime break with a 57-48 lead.
Powell drilled a three â€” and glared at the Bucks bench â€” four minutes into the third quarter to give the Raptors a 15-point lead.
The game got heated in the third when Greg Monroe took offence after he flew over Valanciunas’s hip. Monroe tried to get at Valanciunas at the other end. The scuffle, which saw the two slapped with technical fouls, had Valanciunas flexing his biceps and fired up the ACC crowd.
The Raptors and Bucks split the first two games in Toronto, then split their two games in Milwaukee.
A Game 7, if necessary, would be back in Toronto on Saturday.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press