Raptors edge out Heat on the back of Fred VanVleet

VanVleet's offense is still a work in progress, but we saw plenty of progress in his 36-point game against the Heat.

8 mins read
Photo from CBC.ca

Fred VanVleet received the ball with just seven seconds remaining on the shot clock and 9:14 remaining in the game. The Toronto Raptors trailed the Miami Heat 87-84 after letting a 15 point lead slip away as the Raptors hadn’t scored for the entirety of the fourth quarter. VanVleet eyed his defender, Andre Iguodala, who, despite coming into the season somewhat rusty from sitting out the first few months in Memphis, remains an elite perimeter defender and someone players generally shy away from taking off the dribble. 

VanVleet didn’t flinch. He dribbled the ball toward the top of the arc, crossed over from his left to right hand, and stepped back into a high-arching three that went straight through the netting to tie the game. 

It was one of those plays that, had it been another night, Raptors’ fans might have held their heads at. After all, VanVleet can be a bit of a “chucker” and has historically had trouble scoring against defenders as long and fast as Iguodala. But this is not the same VanVleet.

After struggling in the Raptors second-round series against a humongous Philadelphia 76ers team last season, playing just 15 minutes (for four points) in the final game, VanVleet came into this season with a new and improved skill set. No longer would he be deterred by size, not if he was going to become a focal point of the Raptors offense — a starter and secondary ball-handler — and stay on the floor against big, perimeter-oriented teams. 

VanVleet increased his range, becoming a reliable three-point shooter not just one or two feet behind the arc but several. And against the Miami Heat on Monday afternoon, VanVleet showcased the rest of his improvement from last season: his ability to create his own shot off the dribble — as he did against Iguodala on that crucial possession — as well as his (still developing) ability to attack the basket and finish at the rim. It’s how he got to a career-high 36 points, including seven made three-pointers and 13-13 from the free-throw line. 

People who watch the Raptors nightly know how good VanVleet is defensively: his ability to defend fast point guards like Steph Curry and Damien Lillard is an incredible asset, as is his defensive IQ and team-defense. VanVleet leads the league in deflections, averaging 4.2 per game, and he got a crucial one down the stretch against Miami, knocking the ball away from Goran Dragic for a turnover with just 12 seconds remaining in a two-point game.

“Staying locked in (defensively) is probably my favourite thing that I do,” VanVleet said after the game, “and it gets the least amount of credit.”

But his offensive improvement is what stood out eye against the Heat. VanVleet is an incredibly confident player with an edge, and it seems as though he made it a point of emphasis after last year’s title run that his offense was going to be a weapon no matter who was defending him; that no team would be able to run him off the floor again like the 76ers did.

Against the Heat, it was VanVleet who took control of the game, eventually running Kendrick Nunn, the small defender assigned to VanVleet to start the game, off the floor. VanVleet punished Nunn multiple times for going under screens set by big men Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, each time smoothly dribbling sideways into a three-pointer. Eventually, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra could no longer trust Nunn, playing him just four minutes and 18 seconds in the second half.

When the Heat started trapping VanVleet, sending both defenders at him coming off a screen, VanVleet remained calm and found open shooters instead of turning the ball over. It’s an important quality for a lead ball-handler to have, especially one who has a tendency to get hot from behind the arc.

“I think I’m pretty comfortable with the blitzing, with the trapping,” VanVleet said. “Obviously they’re an aggressive team, so (I) just try to be prepared for that. But I don’t get blitzed that often, so as a team, it’s going to take a little adjusting. (I need to) just try to keep beating the bigs around (the corner) and being aggressive at the rim.”

But it was not only his three-point shooting and ability to handle pressure that allowed him to control the game. After all, elite offensive players find other ways to score, knowing their shot won’t be falling every night. VanVleet has been a historically bad at-rim finisher, which Blake Murphy outlined here. But against the Heat it was VanVleet who attacked the paint early and often, using the Kyle Lowry way to get in front of his defender and use the angles and change of pace to get to the line 13 times. He even had some crafty finishes while taking contact from long defenders:

If VanVleet can score at multiple levels like he did against the Heat — hitting seven threes, 13 fouls shots, and several finishes at the rim — while remaining a smart ball-handler and good facilitator regardless of traps, he will be a huge boost to the Raptors offense in the postseason. We know what VanVleet can do defensively on a nightly basis, but his offense is still a huge work in progress, and we saw plenty of progress in his 36-point game against the Heat.

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