We love and hate Fred VanVleet because he is a reflection of us. We see VanVleet as a mirror because of his ordinary stature while playing in a realm that is decidedly more fantasy than reality. The NBA is a land of incomprehensibility. Players are unfathomably tall, athletic, and fluid. They are athletically gifted in ways that are both visible and impossible to see with the naked eye. Amidst this land of giants and roadrunners, it’s almost too easy to spot VanVleet, visible for his living beneath the crowd, most standing out for his standing under the field of battle.
It’s natural to look at VanVleet on a basketball court and see yourself. He is a normal human height, which is a simple but unbreakable connection to most viewers. We love his success story, the fact that he wasn’t drafted, had to work for every minute he’s ever seen in an NBA game. He’s an inherent underdog. His skills, shooting and defensive tenacity, seem more born from struggle than other players’ skills, as they boast preternatural wingspans and 40-yard-dash times.
We also criticize VanVleet for those same qualities. When he plays poorly, we see an undersized guard with no recourse for improvement. VanVleet’s presence on the court can look as doomed as a picnicker inside a live volcano. He can’t jump over opponents or speed around their endless arms, so what can he offer when he flings himself at the rim to no avail? He looks like us, and we surely couldn’t survive on an NBA court, so what is he doing there? We burn him in effigy – otherwise known as social media – after poor outings, when really we’re just burning ourselves. VanVleet doesn’t run from the criticism. He hears it and internalizes it.
“Guys know I’m struggling,” said VanVleet after the game. “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.”
When VanVleet is riding the struggle bus, it’s difficult to see what he could possibly do to solve the problems. That’s what makes his contributions so impressive when they occur. He’s like a lone captain sailing across the ocean; when the waves hit, how could he possibly stay afloat? But VanVleet survives, as have the Raptors, and he somehow always ends up on the other side of the swell, where his teammates know he’ll be.
“They still throw the ball to me in certain spots, guys stand in your corner,” said VanVleet. “To have their respect, the guys who mean the most to you, in your corner, that allows you to keep focussing and keep pushing forward.”
“You kind of always have a sense that (VanVleet’s) in control,” said Pascal Siakam. “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.”
The first two games of this Eastern Conference Finals against the Bucks saw VanVleet fighting through hell, testing that trust he had earned. Game three was his purgatory, as he shepherded the Raptors to a double-overtime victory despite shooting poorly.
“I was so excited that, we had Kyle (Lowry) foul out with six minutes to go, and we played double-overtime, and I thought (VanVleet) ran the team great,” said Nick Nurse. “He stepped up and ran the team and got us a ‘W’.”
It wasn’t pretty, but VanVleet and the Raptors survived game three. Game four wasn’t heaven, but it was VanVleet’s return to the land of the living.
VanVleet wasn’t Toronto’s best player in game four. Kawhi Leonard played on one leg and was still the game’s most impactful performer, locking Giannis Antetokounmpo in prison on the defensive end. Serge Ibaka was a primal demon on the glass on both ends, dunking everything in sight. Norman Powell actually took the most shots on the Raptors. But VanVleet returned to his normal role of providing steady bursts of energy, more solar panel than solar flare.
VanVleet hit two triples in the first quarter, finishing the game with 13 points on six shots, six assists, and only one turnover. He was a +25 in the game, second only to Powell. He played hounding, relentless defense, constantly denying the ball from George Hill and Malcolm Brogdon. But VanVleet wasn’t without highlights of his own. On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Raps threw the ball away with a few thoughtless passes. VanVleet was there to redeem them, immediately stealing the ball from Nikola Mirotic and pass-faking his way into an easy layup. He banked in a shot-clock-beating triple only a few minutes later, and the Raptors led by 17. He beat another shot-clock with a scoop layup on the next possession, and the Fred-led rout was fully underway.
What did he change to finally turn around his performance? Absolutely nothing. His defense has been stellar all playoffs, and all that changed was that his jumper finally started falling.
“He needed one of those games,” said Kyle Lowry. “You know what he needed? That banked three to go in. Stuff like that. Just get in some type of rhythm. He played well and made some great plays tonight. 3-for-3 from three. Sometimes it’s just one or two shots where something happens. It’s all mental sometimes.”
The basketball performance was impressive, and VanVleet sorely needed the bounce-back game. However, perhaps the most relatable aspect of VanVleet’s performance actually came outside of the realm of basketball. His teammates hugged him when he left the floor. It wasn’t because of his 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,” said VanVleet. “Obviously the last twenty-four hours were pretty special.”
VanVleet’s son, born the day before the game, is named Freddy Jr.
Cheering for VanVleet is like seeing a world inside a grain of sand, and also vice versa, seeing oneself in a world where mere mortals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. On the court, he’s physically more human than deity. As a result, he’ll certainly struggle again in the future. But that’s what makes his success so sweet. And for one night, perhaps the first night for him in this playoff run, VanVleet – and all of us by extension – had everything go right. When he left the game, he could hardly reach his seat for the mob of hugs from his teammates, as well as from Drake. VanVleet’s teammates love him. They celebrated both his performance and the birth of his son. After VanVleet’s disastrous start to the series, and a chorus of vitriol from fans, the city of Toronto can now again swim back to loving its most relatable son.