I really hope Leon Powe knows how much Celtics fans like him and will miss him. We all know why that is–the well-documented childhood difficulties, the never-ending series of knee injuries that seemed to happen right when he was turning a corner, and the way Leon responded to all of it by working even harder. He’s a bit of a cliche fan favorite, actually–the scrappy role player who overcomes personal and professional obstacles to contribute to a championship team.
But let’s talk about basketball. There was something that drew me to Leon Powe from the moment I saw him play: He’s a bit awkward. There are guys who just look beautiful in the post, whether they are fading along the baseline (Olajuwon), stroking the mid-range jumper (KG), juking guys with shoulder fakes before tossing up a soft jump hook (Duncan) or nailing a high-arcing turnaround J (Dirk).
Leon is not pretty to watch. You see–almost feel–every bit of effort it takes him to put the ball on the floor, lower his shoulder into a taller defender and flick a one-handed shot toward the rim. He can’t leap much without a head of steam, and he’s not quick or explosive enough to beat his defenders with spin moves or dribble-drives. He was usually shooting right over a defender’s body, and so he never really seemed to have the time or space to aim his shots, unless he was dunking (and, man, were those dunks ferocious). He often pushed off with his left hand to create the minimal space he had. Every time he attacked the rim, I cringed, expecting an offensive foul.
The shots, once released, look a bit like blind tosses toward something approximating the correct area of the rim or the backboard. And they always seem to bounce around the rim and off the backboard before going down.
And they went down 52 percent of the time, and 57 percent of the time in the ’08 championship season. And when the shots weren’t going down, Leon was drawing fouls. He led the Celtics–by far–in free throw attempts per 36 minutes in each of the last two seasons, not an easy feat on a team with Paul Pierce.
He is a graceless, below-the-rim player for the most part, and I love him for it. Debilitating knee injuries robbed him of his peak athleticism, and so he adjusted, and he became a relentless wrecking ball who did the best with the body he has now. He made himself into and NBA player even after he lost the athleticism that made him an intriguing NBA prospect to begin with.
(Reminisce about Leon’s greatest Celtic moment, and view some YouTube-age, after the jump).
It all came together in Game 2 of the 2008 NBA Finals, which I think will be the Leon memory most of us will hold closest. You all remember the highlights (included in a YouTube compilation below): the two dunks to end the 3rd quarter, the first a fast break posterization of Luke Walton off a feed from the Truth; the coast-to-coast dunk in the early 4th quarter that drove Phil Jackson crazy and served as the ultimate indictment of that Laker team’s toughness.
But what I like about that game is the fact that Powe’s most important work came in the 2nd quarter, when he scored eight points in a six-minute span that included a game-changing 13-2 Boston run. You know how many field goals Leon made in that stretch? One. His other six points came on free throws, as he used his body and his unconventional game to draw four shooting fouls on LA. Blue-collar Leon at his best at the most important moment.
Powe scored 21 points in the game, and there was no reason to expect such a contribution, because his minutes had been dwindling as the playoffs wore on. Starting with Game 4 of the Cleveland series, Leon barely played. Doc benched him altogether for Game 6 at Cleveland and games 3 and 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit. In between, he played just 1:15 of garbage time in a blowout Game 4 loss.
But Leon stayed ready, and he exploded when his moment game in Game 2. It was great to see.
That sort of thing has actually happened a lot in Leon’s brief career. He didn’t play at all over a seven-game span between Jan. 2 and Jan. 16 of the ’07-08 season, all of them DNP-CDs save for the game he missed for the birth of his son. But then KG suffered an abdominal strain on Jan. 25th, forcing Doc to play Leon extended minutes.
Powe responded with a career-high (then) 25 points in a January 29th win against Miami (a game Ray Allen also missed), kicking off a stretch of nine games in which Leon averaged 13 points per and hit double-figures seven times.
This year? His minutes fell in January, when Doc played him fewer than 10 minutes in three straight games for the first time all season. When the minutes jumped up again, his production wasn’t there–until KG hurt his knee on Feb. 19 at Utah. Over the next 11 games, Leon averaged nearly 14 points per game.
Then what happened? He collided knee-to-knee with Ben Gordon on March 17, and missed all but the last two games of the regular season. Another good streak, interrupted.
He came back for the playoffs and did exactly what he was supposed to do in Game 1 against Chicago: Eight points and eight rebounds in 16 super-efficient minutes. He could score against Chicago’s front court.
Then Game 2, and another knee injury, this time a torn ACL. A playoff run in a free agent year, interrupted.
Leon will fight back from this, like he has from every other injury he has suffered. He just won’t be doing it with the Celtics. But I hope he knows that Celtics fans will be watching him, and rooting for him, wherever he goes. A piece of the 2008 title will always belong to Leon.