TORONTO – It’s been an emotional 48 hours for Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet.
On Sunday, VanVleet shot 1-for-11 in his team’s double overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks – one of the worst offensive showings of his three-year NBA career.
It was just the latest chapter in a disappointing postseason run for the former Sixth Man of the Year finalist. Through the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, VanVleet had scored 10 points on 20 shots. He was shooting a shockingly abysmal 7-for-44 since the start of the previous series against Philadelphia.
Late in the game he took an elbow to the left eye, which required multiple stitches to close the gash that remained bloodied hours later.
On Monday, he welcomed his second child and first son, Fred Jr., into the world.
The following evening, on very little sleep, VanVleet re-joined his teammates ahead of the Raptors’ crucial and potentially series-shifting Game 4.
Despite being at home, Toronto was a 3-point underdog going into the night, and you could understand why. Down 2-1 in the series, the Raptors emptied the tank to win Game 3. Their two leading scorers, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, had each logged over 50 minutes, with Leonard playing on a leg injury of undisclosed severity. Meanwhile, the team’s supporting cast – VanVleet included – continue to underwhelm.
However, Tuesday’s game was a different story. VanVleet checked in with three minutes to go in the opening quarter. The score was tied. Eight seconds later he knocked down his first shot, a long three-pointer at the top of the arc. Early in the second quarter he hit his second, a triple from the elbow.
Instead of bleeding points or coughing up the lead, as they’ve done for most of the postseason, the Raptors’ bench extended it. An ongoing thorn in Milwaukee’s side, Norman Powell looked to attack early and finished the game with 18 points. Serge Ibaka’s energy was contagious; he had a double-double of 17 points and 13 rebounds. But VanVleet’s performance was the biggest, and perhaps the most unexpected, of them all.
“Honestly, it’s been rough shooting the ball,” VanVleet said after the Raptors’ 120-102 upset win. “Pretty bad stretch, so it’s good to see some go in. But it's one game.”
In 25 minutes off the bench, the 25-year-old scored 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting. He hit all three of his three-pointers and recorded six assists with only one turnover. Toronto outscored the Bucks by 25 points with him on the floor.
VanVleet isn’t lacking in self-confidence – it’s the genesis behind his motto-turned brand “bet on yourself – but he’s also as self-aware as any professional athlete you’re likely to come across.
Prior to the game, head coach Nick Nurse lauded VanVleet for his defensive effort throughout this series, in spite of his shooting slump, but that was hardly a consolation for the player himself.
“I expect more of myself,” he said following his bounce-back Game 4. “It's tough to not play up to standards and be caught up in a bunch of different reasons that nobody really cares about. That’s just the circumstance I’m in. So you've just gotta keep focused, keep working, and try to get better between these days. Staying right mentally is a key part of that, and I have the opportunity, and sometimes it comes all at once. That's just how it happens sometimes.”
Coming off a breakout sophomore season – one in which he finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting – VanVleet earned a two-year, $18 million contract over the summer. While he averaged career-highs in points (11.0), assists (4.8) and minutes (27.5) in 2018-19, his third season was filled with highs and lows.
He battled a myriad of injuries early in the season, including a back issue that never fully healed, and missed over a month late in the year with a thumb ailment. It’s been a roller coaster.
In February, veteran point guard Jeremy Lin was brought in off the buyout market to help fortify Toronto’s backcourt depth. He wasn’t supposed to replace VanVleet as Kyle Lowry’s backup, but play alongside him in the vacant Delon Wright role. Lin, who shot 37 per cent in 23 games as a Raptor, ended up playing himself out of the rotation.
As VanVleet continued to struggle, much of the fan base clamoured for him to be sent to the bench in favour of Lin. Nurse maintained that not only was VanVleet contributing on the defensive end but his body of work had earned him the benefit of the doubt. He’s a 39 per cent career three-point shooter, one of the best marks on the team, and the thinking was his jumper would come around eventually.
It finally did on Tuesday. With the Raptors pulling away late in the fourth quarter, VanVleet hit his third three of the night. As he came off the floor several of his teammates met him with high fives and words of encouragement.
“Guys know I'm struggling,” he said. “It's not rocket science. I don't run from it, I don't hide from it. I know I have to play better. I'm accountable, and I try to take it on the chest. My teammates are there for me, and they want to see me win, they want to see me play well. As you saw, everybody could feel that it was a better game. More so than that, I wasn't going to tell you guys, but just having my son yesterday was, I think that was more the hugs that I was getting, was guys were kind of showing me some love for that. Obviously, the last 24 hours were pretty special.”
“The fact that I don't get benched, or they still throw the ball to me in certain spots, and guys stand in your corner, that's what means the most. To have their respect, and have the guys who mean the most to you in your corner, that allows you to keep focussing and keep pushing forward.”
“Most of the time, I think Fred is that type of guy where he knows what he has to do,” Siakam said. “And you kind of always have a sense that he's in control. You never feel like he's doubting himself or anything like that. I just always feel confident in him when he's out there on the floor. No matter if he's scoring or not. Just being on the floor with him, I feel comfortable.”
Clearly at less than 100 per cent, Leonard battled his way through 34 minutes and while he never quite looked like himself, he served as the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo and limited the Bucks superstar and NBA MVP frontrunner for the second straight game. Still, they only got 19 points from him, and 26 points from he and Siakam combined, which would be a death sentence on most nights.
Instead, the Raptors got contributions from everybody. Lowry led the team with an efficient 25 points on 11 shots. Marc Gasol added 17 points and seven assists. Meanwhile, Toronto’s bench – which came in averaging a hair over 20 points per game in the postseason – totalled a playoff-high 48 points. To put that in perspective, that’s more than they scored in the first four games of the 76ers series combined.
Now, tied at two wins apiece, the series starts anew – a best-of-three starting with Game 5 in Milwaukee on Thursday. The Raptors have to feel pretty good about that, given how the series started. You could even argue that they should be up 3-1 if they didn’t let the opener slip away. Despite trailing wire-to-wire in Game 2, they’ve led for 61 per cent of the series through four games, 81 per cent of Games 1, 3 and 4.
The Bucks aren’t going to forget about Leonard, though, and his leg injury isn’t likely to disappear overnight. For them to steal one of the two games in Milwaukee, win the series and reach their stated goal of getting to the Finals, Tuesday’s performance should be the blueprint.