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O Captain! My Captain!: Fred VanVleet Returns

It’s the start of the second quarter, and the Toronto Raptors are trailing 30–20 after the Washington Wizards have come out firing early in Game 6—a game that if the Wizards lose, they will be forced to swap jerseys and sneakers for bucket hats and fishing poles.

For the first time since Game 2, Fred VanVleet enters.

He hadn’t looked good in that initial stint, playing about three minutes of action and appearing, as Dwane Casey put it, “tentative” on the floor. It quickly became apparent that while VanVleet may have been mentally ready for playoff basketball, his shoulder certainly wasn’t. So Casey yanked him from the game, and a frustrated VanVleet spent all of his time afterwards devoted to getting right, no matter how much he wanted to be helping the team win.

This time, though, things are different.

The Raptors are on the road, so there’s no raucous roar of jubilation when VanVleet steps onto the hardwood. He simply enters the game, and begins to play. This suits VanVleet’s style as a player, and his role on the team, just fine. Dominance in subtlety is how VanVleet has forged himself a career, and in Game 6, that modus operandi showed its trustworthy face again.

With Jakob Poeltl in foul trouble, the bench is out there with Jonas Valanciunas, who is playing well. With that group in tow, VanVleet leads a sudden charge, controlled and intelligent, that sends the Raptors on a 13–8 run and propels their net rating to 52.8 over a six-minute span, effectively cutting into the Wizards’ lead even with their All-Stars on the floor.

When you boil it down to its core, VanVleet simply gives the team more confidence, more poise, and an identity that the second unit has been missing in his absence. He’s spectacular at commanding pace, pushing the ball whenever he can to allow players like Pascal Siakam, who thrives in chaos (and finished a game-high +18), to find their comfort zones.

The chemistry didn’t go anywhere, either. VanVleet always knows exactly where his teammates are going to be (sometimes before they do), and he finds cutters and guys on the roll as well as anyone on the club. He is very much like having a second Kyle Lowry, and while Delon Wright has been excellent running things on his own, VanVleet’s extra playmaking has been sorely missed.

Here, Valanciunas bypasses the notion of setting a screen, instead spotting a lane and bursting towards the hoop. VanVleet sees him the entire way, and as soon as he knows Ian Mahinmi isn’t going to be able to do anything to stop the Lithuanian, he tosses the ball up high and watches Valanciunas crush the one-handed alley-oop.

In another example of the Wizards’ defense being porous, Siakam gives VanVleet a hand-off at the top of the arc. All eyes on Freddy, Siakam spots a lane, much like Valanciunas did earlier, and takes off before Tomas Satoransky can recover quickly enough. VanVleet immediately hoists another lob, and Siakam finishes with ease.

Something that Wright doesn’t really have much of is a pull-up midrange game, and as such that isn’t something the Wizards were used to dealing with in this series. VanVleet, however, can pull-up from anywhere on the floor, and if he’s given the space (generally while defenders are scrambling to stick with the Raptors’ off-ball movement), he’ll make you pay. He didn’t shoot well in this game, going just 2–7 from the field, but the threat of his scoring was almost as important as when he did knock down a jumper.

Here, Valanciunas once again comes to set a screen at the top the arc. VanVleet navigates it beautifully, turning a hard left past his center after Bradley Beal goes overtop, dribbling to the top of the key. With Beal safely behind him and Mahinmi forced to stay back lest VanVleet lob to a rolling Valanciunas again, Steady Freddy pulls up and drains the midrange look.

Having another good defender on the floor never hurts, either. VanVleet’s defense was solid for the most part in this game, and his individual defense was great.

In this example, VanVleet manages to keep John Wall in front of him at all times. First, he goes over the Marcin Gortat screen, and Wall ends up isolating him at the arc. Wall tries a couple crossovers, looking to go right, but VanVleet stands his ground, taking contact with his chest and forcing Wall to pick up his dribble with eight on the shot clock. Wall is forced to pass the ball, and Markieff Morris winds up making a tough shot.

Then comes the fourth, do or die time in an elimination game on the road, and Casey lets loose the full Bench Mob, once again reunited with VanVleet at the helm. The score to start the quarter is 78–73 for Washington, and that’s promptly sliced into courtesy of a 13–7 run that gives the Raptors a momentum they never really lose.

Remember that VanVleet only hit two shots in this contest? Well, his second shot was perhaps one of the most important of the game. With his typical uber confidence and ice in his veins, he here catches the ball off a Poeltl pass with the shot clock running down. He’s wide-open, with a bunch of switching having left poor Gortat to try and close out coming up all the way from below the basket. He’s too late, of course, and VanVleet launches a gorgeous triple that splashes home to knot the game up at 78 all.

By the time VanVleet finally leaves the game for the night, the score is 96–90 in favour of Toronto with just under three minutes to go, and the starters take things from there.

Another classic VanVleet performance.

Up to this point in the series, the Bench Mob had been struggling mightily. Unless they were paired with Lowry, they never seemed to be able to find their stride, their identity. They posted a -64 net rating with DeMar DeRozan in this series, for example. With a healthy VanVleet back, however, the Bench Mob played a total of six minutes together, and in those six minutes they posted the team’s best net rating of any lineup with a hilariously good 99.5 rating. VanVleet himself finished with the team’s second-highest plus-minus at +12 (tied with Wright) despite his shooting woes.

Having VanVleet back suddenly makes the Raptors feel whole again. Without him, they’re a very good basketball team. With him, they’re the the number one seed fans have watched all year long.

That’s the team that finished off the Wizards, and that’s the team that has a chance at making a deep playoff run.

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