It’s funny how life works, isn’t it?
For the first month of the playoffs, including two full series and half of the games played in the Eastern Conference Finals, Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet was mired in one of the worst shooting slumps in his NBA career.
Aside from the postseason opening loss to the Orlando Magic where he scored 14 points, VanVleet failed to eclipse the double-digit mark over the next 14 games. Playing his usual role off the bench, the backup point guard was still engaged in the games with his passing from time-to-time, but the shooting slump seemed to have crept into his mind and into the Raptors’ bench production.
In the first three games of the East Finals, the Bucks had outscored Toronto’s second unit 130-78. When you look at him scoring essentially one bucket per contest on 21.7 percent from the field—and a ghastly 14.3 percent from deep—it’s obvious why there was a negative domino effect. VanVleet wasn’t himself. Anybody watching him knew it, and he definitely knew it.
All it can take to change things, though, is one moment. For VanVleet, it was becoming a father.
In between Game 3 and 4 vs. the Milwaukee Bucks, the 25-year-old flew from Toronto back to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois to witness his son Fred Jr. being born. VanVleet spent almost all of May 20 at home with the baby and his family before coming back to the floor as a new dad the next night.
To no one’s surprise, he also returned as a new player.
Since the life-changing experience, VanVleet paced a group of reserves that desperately needed a jolt and certainly received one.
From Game 4 to Game 6, the Raptors saw their bench bunch pour in 115 points to Milwaukee’s 61. Miraculously, Toronto edged them out in the series point total despite the previous lack of production.
You’ll notice in that period that the trio of VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka were the top three players on the team in net rating by far. Just by watching, it’s obvious how each of them fed off one another, as well with the starters.
Yet VanVleet seemed to stand out that much more individually. Following the birth of his son, he produced to the tune of 13 points and six assists in 25 minutes in Game 4. Two nights later, he erupted for 21 points on seven shots, all of which were from deep. And in the series finale, he added four more triples—most importantly the one he hit before the first half ended and another early in the fourth quarter.
VanVleet led the way among all players involved in the series in offensive (127.6), defensive (91.2) and net rating (36.4) from May 21 to 25 by a significant margin.
Is it a small sample size compared to the rest of the playoffs? Sure.
Does VanVleet have it in him to keep up this pace with the Golden State Warriors up next? It won’t be easy, but this writer thinks it can be done.
The defending NBA Champions will have their hands full with the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam carrying the offensive load. They’ll strategically plan to limit those two, and Kyle Lowry, from scoring the basketball in order to make “the other guys” beat them.
Those players who will get the opportunity to do so are Danny Green, Powell, Ibaka and VanVleet. It’s been tough to count on Green as he’s been unable to find his stroke since the early second round. While Powell and Ibaka are on a roll, they usually seem to do the most of their damage at home.
VanVleet, however, is going to be a true X-factor. Most notably, because of Stephen Curry.
The Warriors franchise superstar point guard is as slippery as they come. Not only is he a threat to shoot from anywhere on the floor with ease; he’s in perpetual motion when the ball is not in his hands.
Curry slithers around in the half-court for the entirety of almost every possession Golden State has. He’ll drag defenders into screens inside and out, freeing himself up for either a great look for himself or to set up a cutting teammate with a better one.
Kyle Lowry deserves to be in the NBA Finals and won’t take the chance for granted. Still, it’s hard to imagine the 33-year-old not getting winded chasing Curry around every single time down the court if the matchups are set as such. That’s where VanVleet can step in and provide the biggest boost on both ends.
Yes, he’s done the brunt of his work as a shooter, yet the most dangerous version of VanVleet is when’s driving and diming. It gets defenses on their heels and throws off the balance. In those last three games, he had nine assists (16 potential), but it was the five secondary assists—hockey assists if you will—that made just as much of an impact.
Though his usage wasn’t very high during that stretch, VanVleet drove to the hole 19 times and passed the ball in 14 of those instances. That’s a 73.7 percent pass percentage, and it’s that kind of movement that allows others to thrive.
His Raptors’ teammates reciprocated in the form of passes back to him, in which VanVleet made 11-of-13 threes on the catch-shoot resulting in 33 points. Mind you, this was against a long, athletic Bucks team who thrived on defending the perimeter.
These are the Warriors though, a much different, refreshed, well-rested, focused group that’s looking to win a fourth NBA Title in five years. They’re not easy to beat when they’re locked in on defense. We know how dangerous they are when forcing turnovers and turning their opposition’s miscues into points on the other end in transition.
Toronto is averaging a hair under 12 giveaways per game in the postseason, so that is a favorable sign. What they should take caution at, still, is that they’ve never seen this stage before. Golden State has….for five straight playoffs.
Yet, VanVleet is no stranger to the spotlight. He was a part of a Wichita State program that went from underdog to a household name in four years with Gregg Marshall.
Like the Shockers, the Raptors aren’t being given much a chance.
VanVleet fell short of an NCAA Championship in college. This time, as a pro, he’ll get a shot to achieve the same goal in Toronto.
It’s probably safe to say he won’t take it for granted.