Two weeks ago, it appeared that Leon Powe would be an odd man out in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ postseason rotation.
Powe had returned to action in late February, nine months after surgery to repair a torn meniscus and ACL in his left knee. However—after four brief but promising performances—he played just four minutes against Detroit on March 5, and then not at all in subsequent games against Milwaukee and San Antonio.
Cavs coach Mike Brown said at the time that Powe needed court time to get up to speed in time for the playoffs but that, with the addition of Antawn Jamison and the anticipated return of Shaquille O’Neal in April, “the minutes may not be there for him.”
Brown found at least some of those minutes, however, and Powe is currently coming off a stretch of five games in which he averaged eight points and five rebounds in 14 minutes a night.
It culminated in a breakthrough performance Sunday against Detroit, when Powe led the Cavs in scoring with 16 points and added seven rebounds in 21 minutes of action.
Perhaps most telling was the fact that Powe, who hasn’t yet regained the speed and jumping ability that will come with continued conditioning, finally got the nerve to finish one drive with a dunk.
That he has progressed well following a year of difficult rehab comes as no surprise. Powe's life story is one of overcoming major obstacles, such as homelessness and the loss of both of his parents during his childhood alone.
He also rebounded from a serious knee injury in college before encountering, and now overcoming, his latest setback.
So he’s back, and he’s battling for court time—and doing it the right way.
As John Krolik so eloquently put it in his Cavs blog earlier this week, Powe was a one-man wrecking crew against the Pistons on Sunday. He constantly made his presence known inside, gobbling up rebounds and either finishing at the basket or going to the line.
It was a classic power forward performance, recalling the kind of hard-nosed, grind-it-out play that use to be the norm at the 4 spot throughout the NBA.
Powe isn’t doing it with flash and dazzle.
He bangs, fights for position, battles for rebounds, hangs onto the ball, and goes to the basket knowing there will be contact—and intent on getting the upper hand.
His sheer will and determination clearly inspired his teammates on Sunday, and served as a reminder that it’s now that time of year—crunch time—when sometimes nothing matters more than giving your all, every minute you’re on the court.
Earlier this season I wrote that James, whose combination of speed and power are unmatched in the NBA, would do well to take his game inside more often.
He’s done that more frequently this year, with excellent results.
He’s so quick and strong that slower, weaker defenders are left in his wake, and he can rise above bigger, stronger defenders with his explosive leaping ability and surprisingly soft shooting touch around the rim.
To see a master tactician at work in the trenches, however, James need look no further than Powe, whose take-no-prisoners mindset is a good thing for the rest of the Cavs to witness as they prepare for the playoffs.
Things are looking very good for Cleveland right now, particularly with the return of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the knowledge that Shaquille O’Neal will be back in April.
But there will be times in the weeks ahead when things won’t go the Cavaliers’ way. It happened last year, and it will almost surely happen again this time around.
How will they respond?
If they’re smart, they’ll take a page from Leon Powe’s book—and dig deep, when all else fails, to find the heart and determination to get the job done.