7-14 3P https://t.co/2Wu2kLa0V8
— StatMuse (@statmuse) January 5, 2022
Add to that players he is competing with who have been All-Stars, have legitimate All-Star cases this year but have not been as good or prolific as they have been previously — Lowry, Bradley Beal and Jaylen Brown stand out in that category — and VanVleet has a lot going for him. (On the other hand, if VanVleet isn’t named a starter, it will be up to the coaches to vote for him. Coaches tend to gravitate to players they are used to game-planning against and have picked before, although winning trumps all.)
There is the matter of the winning, though. That’s why DeMar DeRozan, who is having a brilliant season, is a virtual lock for one of the starting spots. It is why it’s hard to decipher between the supernova numbers of Trae Young on the languishing Hawks and the not as phenomenal but still crooked stats from James Harden.
VanVleet has been responsible for so much of the load this year, particularly as a handler in the pick-and-roll. However, with Pascal Siakam (five assists against the Spurs, 27 over his past four games) and Scottie Barnes (a career-high eight dimes Tuesday) healthy and looking to grab the rebound and push the ball in transition, VanVleet is in a better position than he has been all season to get off the ball. And that’s when he can put up nights like the ones he has posted over the past week. He came into the game shooting better than 48 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s this season.
Meanwhile, his impact statistics are as kind to him as they used to be to Lowry as a Raptor. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR stat loves him, as does a simple contrast of the Raptors’ net rating with him on the floor (6.4 points per 100 possessions after Tuesday’s win) versus the stat when he is on the bench (minus-13.1). That says as much about the Raptors’ guard depth behind VanVleet as it does about the player, but it underscores his value to this team.
The All-Star Game isn’t just a collection of the players most valuable to their teams, though. It is supposed to lay bare the 12 players who are having the best half-seasons in each conference. By that idea on its own, it will be hard, if not impossible, to keep VanVleet from a spot in the game, set for Feb. 20 in Cleveland.
“(He’s an) All-Star, off the rip,” VanVleet’s teammate Justin Champagnie said. “What he’s doing is incredible, for himself and the team. He’s a big part of this team, and he’s been putting on a show for everybody to see he deserves to be an All-Star.”
VanVleet has been silencing doubters his entire career.
Before the game Spurs coach Gregg Popovich admitted he hadn’t paid a lot of attention to VanVleet’s season, given he’s got enough problems with his struggling team. But you can be sure VanVleet got his attention, which could be crucial given his candidacy will likely come down to a vote among the coaches, who pick seven of the 12 spots in each conference.
Even heading into this year there were questions about how he would manage being the so-called ‘head-of-the-snake’ with the departure of backcourt mate Kyle Lowry.
If defences loaded up on him, would he be able find his shot? Get to the rim?
Yes, and yes. And through the first 34 games of the Raptors’ season he’s done it even while having to paper over long-term absences from Siakam, OG Anunoby and Khem Birch. He’s shared the court more with 20-year-old rookie Barnes and 22-year-old Trent Jr., an NBA starter for the first time in his career.
“He’s really the focal point guard on his own,” said Nurse. “Certainly, with Kyle gone, the attack was always a two-man deal. He’s had to run the team a little bit more and all those kind of things. He’s playing great. He does a lot of things well. It just isn’t scoring or assisting. He’s a great blocker outer, for example, he’s a rebounder, he runs the team, he finishes at the rim, shoots 3, mid-range stuff developing. He’s continuing to get better.”
His counting stats are more than impressive: He’s averaging 20.9 points, 6.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 40 per cent from deep on nearly nine attempts a game. The only other player doing all that is Steph Curry from the Golden State Warriors, the early-season favourite for league MVP.
Dive deeper and there is more. The Raptors are an absurd 21.4 points per 100 possessions better when VanVleet is on the floor than when he’s not, which is second behind 2020-21 MVP Nikola Jokic and just ahead of Curry.
He leads the NBA in loose balls recovered on defence, is second in deflections and is among the league leaders in steals.
It was all on display against the Spurs. The Raptors led by one at the end of the first quarter as VanVleet put up 13 quick points on 10 shots, and then controlled in the second quarter when VanVleet had 11 points and five assists as the Raptors led 68-53 at half. VanVleet had nine more as his club stretched the game out in the third, where his highlight was a nasty jab step sequence against former Raptor and old friend Jakob Poeltl — leading to another VanVleet triple. Poeltl torched his old team for 19 points and 12 rebounds in 23 minutes, but VanVleet got the better of him there.
With Dejounte Murray still out even after clearing health and safety protocols, the Spurs needed other players to pick up the scoring slack. Devin Vassell answered the call early by hitting back-to-back threes right after tipoff, and the good guys led for much of the opening frame. Toronto soon recovered by taking advantage of their size, as the Raptors bullied their way into the paint and converted on a number of second-chance opportunities.
On the other hand, San Antonio relied on their ball movement and off-ball cuts to generate easy looks around the rim. Unfortunately, the Spurs struggled to contain Pascal Siakam’s drives when he hunted mismatches that helped him draw numerous fouls. The Silver & Black overcorrected on defense by trying to pack the paint, which led to open shots from Fred VanVleet, who finished with a game-high 33 points. San Antonio’s lacklustre offense didn’t help either, as the team became stagnant and gave the ball away on a few possessions and went into half-time down by 15.
The Spurs looked poised to go on a run a couple of times in the third quarter, but the Raptors seemingly scored at will every time the good guys tried to build momentum. Jakob Poeltl managed to stem some of the bleeding by shoring up the paint and pulling down 12 rebounds, but San Antonio’s perimeter defense was an absolute mess. The team constantly got their assignments mixed up and conceded wide-open looks to players such as Justin Champagnie, who knocked down four shots from deep for the Raptors.
With the game all but over, Pop pulled the starters to give the reserves some run, and Joe Wieskamp was especially impressive by scoring 13 points in the final period. The bigger issue, however, was the Spurs’ defense, as they gave up at least 110 points for the fourth consecutive match and ultimately lost 129-104 in Toronto.
Toronto was out and running a lot in this one, as Nick Nurse put a joyous rotation on display. After starting Barnes, Siakam and OG up front again, Nurse never cowtowed to going smaller against a length Spurs team — playing Khem Birch, Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa off the bench for an all-forward lineup twice, in the second quarter and again in the fourth. While the starters did their usual thing, with VanVleet and Trent Jr. clouding passing lanes, the Spurs seemed really discombobulated by the Raptors’ big look, unable to find the creases their rapid ball movement usually creates.
Toronto won the fast break battle 25-10 and points off turnovers 26-13, which basically was where this game was won and lost.
Fred wasn’t alone on the scoreboard. Pascal Siakam had 18 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, dodging some first quarter foul trouble to have another impressive outing. A game-high +26, Siakam ran much of the half court offense to perfection for Toronto, finding shooters on off-ball action, demanding the ball in mismatches and generally showing the same elite decision-making that he has since returning from a second bout with COVID.
Gary Trent Jr. added 21 points of his own, while Scottie Barnes flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 11 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. The Spurs were led by 19 points from former Raptor Jakob Poeltl, who also had 12 boards (four on the offensive end).
Tonight’s game was closest in the first quarter, as the Raptors small lineup started slow. Khem Birch came in for Barnes just 2:30 in as Poeltl quickly established himself as a force inside, but even he couldn’t keep pace with his former teammate VanVleet. Fred and Trent Jr. combined to score 20 of the Raptors’ first 24 points, as Toronto went into the second with a lead, 30-29.
They began to extend their lead after that. Toronto’s supersize forwards look perplexed a hybrid bench lineup from the Spurs, who were missing their star in Dejounte Murray, and Toronto made them pay on the other end — making six of their first 12 threes and continuing a 50% clip into halftime.
Justin Champagnie also made an impact off the bench here, splashing two corner threes that helped push Toronto’s lead into double digits.
Siakam’s night began in ignominious fashion with two fouls in 68 seconds and a quick trip to the bench. And while there have been nights when such a bad start would have weighed on his mind, affected his play and taken him out of the game, it a measure of his confidence and maturity that it didn’t Tuesday.
It should have been no surprise because Siakam’s play of late has been outstanding in more areas than just points and assists, a fact Nurse is quick to point out. In three games before Tuesday’s meeting with the Spurs, Siakam averaged 24.3 points and 7.5 assists on better than 50 per cent shooting from the field to anchor an offence that averaged 115 points per game, but he also averaged 13 rebounds and played above-average defence.
“I know he can score, and I know he can draw (double teams) and pass and do some things, and I also know he can defend,” Nurse said. “He is a really good defender and we need to keep seeing that.
“And I think it’s been awesome to see the rebounding and the finishing at the basket and … all those kind of things. So, there’s a lot that he can do and we’re starting to see all phases of it.”
Siakam chalks up his resurgent play to good health and a full return to form. He missed the entire summer workout and skill development process recovering from shoulder surgery and also sat out the first 11 games of the season getting in shape. He missed two more around Christmas when he was locked again in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
“I’m feeling good, my body’s feeling good and I think I’m taking another step also just taking care of my body and making sure I do everything that’s right so I’m fresh,” he said. “And just a mentality shift in terms of being an all-around player. I feel like I have that ability and not a lot of players have that ability to be able to defend, be able to pass, be able to rebound and also score.”
It helps, of course, that he’s surrounded now by better teammates he’s familiar with. Having a full or nearly full roster puts Siakam in a position to be a facilitator as much as a dominant scorer.
The complete version of the Raptors is egalitarian, they have a handful of No. 1 options and it will change nightly based on matchups and hot hands. There’s no need to designate anyone as the go-to guy because anyone of Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr. or Scottie Barnes could be it.
It takes a load of individual pressure off someone like Siakam, who seems as comfortable setting up teammates as he taking over.
“I know what Gary likes to do, I know what OG likes to do, and I know what Fred likes to do and I think just that just makes me even better and more comfortable out there on the floor,” he said.
Again, take these wins with a grain of salt. The Spurs, much like the New York Knicks the other night, were missing some key pieces due to COVID-19 issues. But you can only play the team across from you and if those losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers count against Toronto, then these wins certainly do too.
Whatever success the Raptors have had and will have this season has come courtesy of Fred VanVleet. If Spurs coach Gregg Popovich hadn’t seen enough tape to decide if Raptors lead guard was worthy of All-Star game recognition when I asked him about it pre-game, that certainly should change post-game. VanVleet carved up the Spurs from deep, nailing three-pointers off the catch as he’s done all year. Coming into the night he’d shot a league-leading 48.4% on catch-and-shot threes.
“Yeah, I mean, I just say that he’s such a good shooter. We’ve known that, right? It’s kind of one of the benefits when he had Kyle and Fred is one of them would be off the ball so one of them could space right while the other one was bringing it,” said Nurse who has let Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam bring the ball up recently to allow VanVleet to play off ball. “That’s playing to a lot of their strengths, especially getting Freddie off, running the break and I really liked the way (Siakam and Barnes) are getting into the paint and finding not only in guys, but out as well.”
After falling behind seven points early in the first quarter, VanVleet quickly snuffed out any hope of a Spurs upset. He had 24 points in the first half alone en route to a 33-point, seven-assist performance that included 12-for-23 shooting from the field.
“I think you recognize when you’re rhythm and you just try to hold on as long as possible because it’s not always like that,” VanVleet said. “So I try to keep my floor a little higher, but when you’re hot I think you’ve just gotta be aggressive and ride it out as long as you can.”
With three straight 30-plus point performances and four in his last five games, VanVleet has firmly solidified himself as someone who should be getting serious consideration for an All-Star game nod this season.
“I think you recognize when you’re rhythm and you just try to hold on as long as possible because it’s not always like that,” VanVleet said of his hot hand of late. “So I try to keep my floor a little higher, but when you’re hot I think you’ve just gotta be aggressive and ride it out as long as you can.
“Just the position we’re in now with having everybody back, I think we can kind of find our own natural roles, which has been a little bit of an issue this year with having guys in and out and guys having to do more than expected, or less than expected,” he said. “So I think we’re finding our natural rhythm of where our team is going to be for now and obviously feeling pretty good.”
With the Raptors well in front after three quarters, VanVleet wasn’t needed beyond that third quarter as he got some much-needed rest in advance of the back end of this Raptors back-to-back Wednesday in Milwaukee.
Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. got the same breathers, with Siakam finishing the night after three quarters with 18 points and 12 rebounds for his third consecutive double-double and Trent Jr. sitting down with 21 points.
Justin Champagnie was the ninth man into the game for the Raptors as coach Nick Nurse kept his rotation tight until the game was well out of reach.
Champagnie had one of those mostly can’t-miss nights hitting his first four three-pointers before missing his fifth in the dying minutes.
The Spurs meanwhile came into the game severely undermanned with regulars Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker and Doug McDermott all missing the game.
With the victory, the Raptors have now posted wins in three consecutive games and are back to .500 for the first time since mid-November.