Norman Powell’s body was sitting in a padded chair along Crypto.com Arena’s sideline Wednesday as the first possessions of an eventual Clippers victory over Phoenix unfolded in front of him.
But the guard’s eyes were closed. His hands were on his legs. And his mind was somewhere else.
Since working with David Nurse, a former basketball player turned “NBA mindset strategist,” Powell has made it his custom to spend the moments before tipoff meditating, typically when arena lights dim and starting lineups are introduced. Even in arenas with 20,000 fans, he finds the quiet.
“That’s what I always do,” Powell said. “I just focus on my breathing. I have different things that I go over in my head, but really I just silence everything and just focus on my breath and come out of there as cool, calm and collected, even-keeled.”
When Powell sees the Clippers with two games remaining in their regular season, and at least one play-in tournament matchup looming next week, he visualizes a team with enough time, talent and experience to make noise in the postseason — a roster whose current composition now that he and Paul George are back following long-term injuries belies its 40-40 record.
Powell scored 24 points and got to the free-throw line 10 times in 23 minutes in Wednesday’s 113-109 win over Phoenix, looking “like he didn’t miss a beat” to coach Tyronn Lue, in his first game since fracturing a bone in his toe Feb. 10. George scored 19 points and is shooting 48% on three-pointers in four games since his return last week.
At the end of a season filled with lengthy injury reports, the Clippers are at their healthiest at the most important time.
“Everybody has been able to hold the rope and keep on going,” Powell said. “To plug in me and PG and get us back to speed and healthy, I think it is going to be really easy [to prepare for the play-in]. We got a lot of firepower. It kind of reminds me of the Raptors [NBA championship] team in 2019 with how deep our team is and the different positions that we have of guys being able to do multiple things on the floor.
“So I’m excited, I don’t think it will be too crazy or anything like oh, we need the whole season to figure it out.”
In March, Lue chuckled when told his team could be a dangerous eighth seed. They now own the eighth-best record in the Western Conference and have two of their three cornerstone players back healthy. The last piece, Kawhi Leonard, is nine months removed from surgery on his knee, which is when many high-level athletes often return to competition, according to surgeons with experience repairing anterior cruciate ligament tears.
The team has yet to provide an update on Leonard’s status, but after George and Powell both produced remarkably smooth performances in their respective returns, Lue acknowledged Wednesday that watching those who were on the floor was “very encouraging seeing how we play” while building a 39-point lead on the short-handed and top-seeded Suns.
Lue said before tipoff that certain lineup combinations had come to him during his afternoon nap, and the second-quarter that saw George, Powell and Robert Covington together looked like a dream as Phoenix scored just nine points.
“We just got to get our plays we want to run, get them down for [Powell], make sure he’s comfortable but, if he can be better than this, we can be dangerous,” Lue said. “I tell you, we’re gonna be dangerous come play-in and playoffs.”
Said George: “I think we’re starting to play our best basketball right now.”
Powell flashed his ability to be a knock-down shooter given the kind of space afforded by George’s presence in the paint as a driver. But on a roster loaded with wings, his skill set is no redundancy and is why the Clippers coveted him ahead of the trade deadline.
The Clippers get to the free-throw line at the fourth-lowest rate in the NBA but Powell’s 5.2 attempts per game from the line rank 13th among all guards this season, and he has increased that average to 7.5 since joining the Clippers.
“You want to stop the bleeding when a team goes on a run, getting to the free-throw line slows the game down and you’re able to get your defense set,” Lue said. “Norm always can get to the free-throw line.”
It’s one reason George said he wanted to play off the ball during his first minutes with Powell, to help Powell acclimate himself. Lue wants to play those two in lineups without a center but stocked with long-armed forwards and wings who can shoot and defend all over. Saturday’s game against Sacramento will feature one lineup of Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, George, Powell and Covington, Lue said.
Powell attempted to play on his fractured medial sesamoid bone in his left foot after his injury happened Feb. 10 in Dallas before realizing it wasn’t possible. George and Leonard advised the guard who admittedly hates missing games and initially bristled at Wednesday’s capped number of minutes to not rush back too early, Powell said.
His rehab took eight weeks. He felt his conditioning begin to sag in the second half but otherwise reported no pain, Lue said. Healthy again, Powell said he sees an intriguing future for the Clippers, a glimpse of which will begin with next week’s play-in tournament.
“I’m excited for what we’re building here,” Powell said. “All the guys are excited, playing along PG, it still doesn’t seem real. He was a guy that I looked up to growing up, a guy, we had some battles in Toronto in the playoffs, and early on in my career he gave me some words of encouragement — my rookie year, that stuck with me.
“So being able to play alongside with him, and Kawhi when he gets back healthy, it’s going to be fun.”