Fred VanVleet Embodies Everything Raptors’ Run Has Been

Three things are true about NBA title teams: They’re defined by their (super)stars, resiliency is key, and some luck is required.

It’s technically too early to declare a champion right now but, in the event that this current trend holds, the Toronto Raptors (3-1) are on their way.

That’s because they easily meet all three descriptors.

The play of Kawhi Leonard during this postseason run has been historic: He’s the living embodiment of what the Raptors bring to the table: in-your-jersey defense and timely shot-making. The luck is there: Even with Leonard banged up, they’re enjoying a cleaner bill of health than the Golden State Warriors by a good margin.

But the resiliency is what stands out the most about this team. You could point to Masai Ujiri’s decision not to blow things up after running into LeBron James countless times. Leonard’s comeback from his controversial season in San Antonio also fits here.

Yet, the microcosm might be the current run by back-up point guard Fred VanVleet.

The attention and praise for Toronto’s Finals run has rightfully gone to the trio of Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Pascal Siakam, though VanVleet has arguably been the steadiest hand of the bunch over the past couple of weeks. Though perhaps a wild assertion on the surface, it becomes even more incredible once you consider how poorly he was playing not too long ago.

He’s broken out of an ill-timed slump to give the Raptors not just a punch off the bench, but the punch when they need it.

Setting the stage

Jun 7, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) shoots the ball against Golden State Warriors guard Andre Iguodala (9) in game four of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ezra Shaw/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

VanVleet put himself firmly in the “best backup guard in the league” discussion last season. His per-game numbers (8.6 points, 3.2 assists) weren’t enough to make him a serious threat in the Sixth Man of the Year award race, but his impact could have. He was more play-finisher than initiator, operating as an off-ball hub alongside either Lowry or Delon Wright in Toronto’s “Bench Mob” units.

He followed that up with a career-best campaign (11.0 points, 4.8 assists) this season. The Raptors’ confidence in him played a part in their decision to include Wright in the deadline deal for Marc Gasol.

However, the Raptors were suddenly in an odd spot thereafter, trying to incorporate Gasol while still figuring out the Leonard-Lowry dynamic. Leonard missing games, Gasol’s sometimes passive playstyle (on offense), and a weaker bench unit led to predictable growing pains.

Though his numbers didn’t suffer much, VanVleet also had to adjust with more on-ball responsibility.

It wasn’t until the playoffs that VanVleet completely fell off, however. He shot well in the playoff opener against the Orlando Magic (14 points on 5-of-9 shooting, 3-of-6 from three), but was a minus-14 during that Raptors’ three-point loss. His shot then completely left him after that showing.

Over the 14 games, VanVleet averaged 3.3 points with a 22/14/73 shooting split. No, that’s not a typo. With inconsistent floor-general skills, once the three-point shot left, most of his value did as well.

To VanVleet’s credit, he stuck with it and broke out at the right time. With the Raptors in a 2-1 hole against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, VanVleet responded with a 13 and 6 effort in Game 4, drilling all three of his triples in the process.

During Game 5, he went for 21 while going 7-of-9 from deep. In the close-out Game 6, he drilled four of his five threes en route to a 14-point performance. His 14-of-17 clip wasn’t just incredible to watch, it was historic.

Carving up the warriors

VanVleet has continued his strong play in the NBA Finals on the biggest stage.

He’s averaging 12.8 points—a mark slightly behind Lowry (13.3) and Gasol (13.0). The three-point shooting is cooling off some (34.3 percent), but he’s compensating by puncturing the defense and finishing at a higher clip. His volume is a bit low (2.3 attempts), but VanVleet is converting an absurd 77.8 percent of his shots at the rim.

It’s the type of shots VanVleet is converting inside that makes the number feel even more cartoonish. He’s displaying incredible toughness and touch when attacking amongst the trees. Strong contests haven’t bothered him much, especially on high-arcing scoops off the glass:

VanVleet runs a pick-and-roll that puts Andre Iguodala on his case above. Iggy sticks with him on his drive to the left and gets physical enough to make the shot tougher without fouling. To VanVleet’s credit, he absorbs the contact and gets the lefty finish to drop.

Still, VanVleet is at his best when operating off the ball.

On top of being a plus-shooter, he does a fantastic job of reading the action. His teammates’ movements dictate where he goes, and that makes it harder for the Warriors to track him.

Peep how VanVeet moves a foot or so to the right to make this close-out tougher:

VanVleet has also (rather oddly) settled in as the Raptors’ dagger hitter in this series.

Over 28 percent of his shot attempts have come with four (or fewer) seconds on the shot clock, via Second Spectrum tracking data. He has an effective field goal percentage of 58.3 on those looks. As proven by his three-point percentage, sometimes it isn’t about how many shots you make, but rather when you make them:

That’s tough.

reporting for curry duty

The biggest question for the Raptors entering the series was how they planned to defend Stephen Curry.

They could keep the matchups straight with Lowry. Leonard or Danny Green could be the “size” options. Would they trap incessantly, or would they try to funnel him downhill? As we would later find out, a box-and-1 wasn’t out of the question either.

538’s Chris Herring was one of the few people I saw mention VanVleet’s success against Curry over the past two seasons. He doesn’t have the size, strength, or length of the ideal Curry stopper, but he does possess two things that help: the ability to slither around screens and a similar mind.

Curry is obviously many tiers above VanVleet as a shooter (and player), but they operate in similar fashion off the ball. Tapping into those similarities certainly gives VanVleet more of a chance to stay attached.

More than anything, VanVleet is relentless. He clutches and grabs, gives subtle bumps, and takes away airspace. That kind of aggressiveness isn’t new to Curry, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating to deal with.

With VanVleet as the primary defender in this series, Curry has scored 30 points on 8-of-26 shooting (4-of-21 from three) over 132 possessions.

To say VanVleet’s done a fantastic job defensively would be an understatement. He’s gotten plenty of help via traps, but we’re now working with a solid sample of him bothering Curry. He deserves his flowers.

If the Raptors hold on, VanVleet won’t win Finals MVP. As valuable as he’s been, he won’t get the Iggy nod we saw in 2015. Leonard has been too good while operating with 1.5 good legs. Still, it’s hard to overstate how valuable VanVleet has been on both ends.

The Raptors wouldn’t be in position for their first title without his timely shot making, feisty defense and elbow-proof face.