Just before the playoffs began, I wrote about how Fred VanVleet had already secured the bag because of all he accomplished during the season. Two games into the post-season, it appears Mr. Bet On Yourself is taking no chances and absolutely ramming home the idea that he deserves all the money a team can offer.
Through 10 games in the bubble, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that VanVleet has been the best player for the defending champion Toronto Raptors. He played six of the eight seeding games, averaging 17.8 points, 6.7 assists, 4.3 deflections, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.5 steals while shooting 41.7 percent from three and making 87.5 percent of his 5.3 free-throw attempts per game.
Through two playoff games, VanVleet has put up 27 points and 10.5 assists while shooting 52.4 percent from deep. His personal 10 point run when the team needed it in Game 2 showcased the type of difference maker he can be for this team. The Raptors are going to have to pay up soon enough.
For now, the team is chasing back-to-back NBA titles and the battling 104-99 win over the Brooklyn Nets show there’s work to be done to be ready for bigger tests. Credit Jacque Vaughn and his staff for making some adjustments both personnel-wise in the form of Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot and strategy.
VanVleet was given different challenges on both ends of the floor so let’s get into how he fared.
COPING WITH SWITCHES
The biggest strategic adjustment the Nets made in this game was switching everything. Brooklyn usually engage in a lot of drop coverage in pick-and-roll action, and this is where the centre sags off to protect the drive and the guard is supposed to fight over the screen and direct the ball handler inside the three-point line.
With Brooklyn now engaging in a switch, they were trusting that Allen’s size would be a deterrent to VanVleet’s outside shooting while having a guard on Marc Gasol would also dare the Spaniard to step outside his comfort zone and be aggressive looking for his shot rather than tee up his teammates.
After shooting 8-for-10 from beyond the arc in Game 1, VanVleet came back down to earth with 3-of-11 shooting from deep in Game 2. Gasol finished 0-for-2 from the field in an abysmal 17 minutes, so consider the strategy successful on the whole.
In the first couple plays below, you see the IQ of VanVleet: First, he recognizes the space left he has for a split-second as the Allen and LeVert are switching so fires up a three and connects, and after that, with that threat still on Allen’s mind in the second half, VanVleet uses a head fake to blow by him and get to the rim and finish.
You have to love the third play at the 0:27 mark. Watch TLC and Allen anticipate the Gasol screen, who quickly instead dives to the basket and that causes a miscommunication. Both TLC and Allen chase Gasol, giving VanVleet plenty of daylight to knock down a three.
The final three plays above show the Nets making life difficult for VanVleet, although he does exceedingly well to finish the fourth play with the left. When it came to coping with a switching defence in general, head coach Nick Nurse spoke to the importance of off-ball action to keep things ticking over.
“When you’re seeing switching you’ve got to cut a little bit more, cut a little harder off the ball, you’ve got slip out of a few more screens, again that’s a cutting type of move as well,” Nurse said after the game.
“You do a little more cutting and a lot less setting of screens. Then we just try to stay away from ball screens, too. We tried to run some more off-ball, pin down actions and quite a few set plays. We usually like to play a pretty open concept type offence but tonight we were calling a lot of plays just to move ‘em around and create a bunch of switches before we attacked the paint.”
VanVleet also saw opportunities to attack the basket when Allen wasn’t in the game, whether it be attacking right off the catch or getting out in transition quickly. There were a couple misses but these are the types of opportunities the Raptors have to seek out in a halfcourt offence that has yet to hit full stride.
The final play below is thoroughly enjoyable, as you can see VanVleet directing traffic and everyone looking ready for a set play, only for VanVleet to punch the gap and get all the way to the rim in a flash. That speed and quickness might be the benefit of all the time off due to the COVID-19 stoppage.
In two playoff games, VanVleet has shot 8-of-13 inside five feet, but it’s too small a sample size to think he’s made real strides in this area (I was guilty off this). Prior to the hiatus, VanVleet shot 48.5 percent within five feet and in the six seeding games he played, he was 14-of-29 (48.3 percent).
This is arguably the one aspect of VanVleet’s game where he stands the most to gain, where if he could get up to even an average percentile for his position, it would take him to a different stratosphere. He finished in the 18th percentile among combo guards in rim finishing percentage this season, was in the 20th percentile last year, and the 14th percentile the season before that, per Cleaning The Glass.
Let’s move on to defence.
BATTLING WITH SCREENS
The Raptors once again looked to force the ball out of LeVert’s hands when possible and challenge his teammates to make decisions and he was excellent in making the right read and trusting them. He shot the ball poorly, but from a process perspective, there’s plenty that LeVert did right.
Early on, he picked apart any attempts the Raptors made to put two bodies in front of him and plenty of credit must go to Jarrett Allen for not only identifying the right opportunities for him to score, but also swing the ball back outside for clean looks from three-point range. Gasol is usually better with his positioning and anticipation, so one would expect him to be better going forward and helping make life a bit more difficult for LeVert.
In the final play above — around the minute mark — watch VanVleet’s effort as he switches onto Allen but takes away the passing lane LeVert is hoping for. The Raptors always have a secondary ready to help on that type of roll as you see Powell hedge over and then return once LeVert goes in a different direction.
CONTESTING LEVERT 1-ON-1
There were several occasions in this game where LeVert looked to fire away from what’s clearly a preferred location for him on the floor. When going at VanVleet 1-on-1, over and over LeVert would look to get to the dotted line and either rise up to shoot over the former Wichita State guard or kick out if he was able to penetrate the defence successfully.
This is ultimately a win for the Raptors, as LeVert isn’t quite at the rim and when he’s shooting towards the basket as opposed to fading away, there is help available from a secondary defender on the contest.
Who says the Raptors don’t have a real home court advantage? All of the baskets below counted as assists for VanVleet, which is… pretty hilarious.
BONUS: FREDDY BLOCKS
Fred said “Get that gahbage outta here!”
Seriously, though, this is a nice recovery by VanVleet after LeVert gets a runway off the crossover and Ibaka is looking to maintain verticality.
VanVleet showed in this game that even when teams scheme for him and try to take away his best strengths, he can battle through and get points on the board, even if it’s not the most efficient day. In a game like Wednesday afternoon against the Nets, it doesn’t really matter how they come, but that they do.
There was a lot the Nets did right, and quite a bit the Raptors have to clean up and improve, which doesn’t bode well for the former going forward especially considering the absence of Joe Harris.
On to Game 3.