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A Look Back—Fred VanVleet and his Game 5 Breakthrough

It was a whirlwind of 24 hours for Fred VanVleet.

Before Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, VanVleet was on his way back to Rockford, Illinois, to be with his family for the birth of his second child, Fred Jr. 

Being with family was exactly what the Raptors point guard needed. 

In a critical road Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks, VanVleet experienced his playoff breakthrough. With 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the field along with seven threes, VanVleet played an impactful role in the Raptors’ 105-99 victory to take a 3-2 series lead.

“It gives you a little perspective, I guess, on life,” VanVleet said on the birth of his second child. “It just changes the way you’re looking at things. You are not so down on yourself about everything.”

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To say VanVleet was struggling in the 2019 NBA Playoffs was a gross understatement. The point guard was 7-of-44 overall from the field and 3-of-25 from 3-point range for the playoffs thus far. The struggles began in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the length and size of the Philadelphia 76ers, which carried over into the Bucks series. 

Until Game 5. 

When the Raptors needed a scorer to support Kawhi Leonard, VanVleet was the answer. 

“This was a super hard win tonight, super hard,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “And we have to play with a tremendous amount of effort.

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“Again, I think our keys are this: We’ve got to play good offense, not turn it over and score the basketball because if you don’t, they’re getting what they want, which is downhill basketball in a hurry.”

The Raptors started Game 5 reeling. The Bucks were in complete control, taking it to the Raptor half-court defense with their transition offense led by Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

“Bend but don’t break” was the mantra for the Raptors for the entirety of Game 5. The team hung around, thanks to Leonard’s efficient shooting and VanVleet hitting critical three-pointers. 

Even in the second half, the Bucks took a 10-point lead. With Leonard on the bench, it was VanVleet’s three threes that got the Raptors to a single-digit deficit. The playmaking of the Raptors superstar benefited VanVleet, evidenced by his three-pointer from the top of the key when Kawhi drew the defense inside then kicked it outside for the wide-open shot. 

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs.”

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In the fourth quarter, VanVleet assisted the Raptors collective defensive effort, limiting the Bucks’ paint touches by forcing contested shots. The Raptors forced four turnovers, allowing them to run the potent transition offense that allows them to rack up the points. 

For the first time in franchise history, the Raptors were one win away to advance to their first NBA Finals. It took many games but the playoff Fred VanVleet finally arrived, making his minutes off the bench count for the Raptors. 

His secret? 

“Zero sleep, have a lot of babies, and go out there and let loose,” VanVleet said.

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