A hobbled Fred VanVleet still gives much to the Toronto Raptors, but his knee injury changes the team

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The growth of the American Interstate system was meteoric, perhaps only paralleled in human history by the creation of wonders like the Pyramids or space-traveling rocket ships. Costing over $100 billion and built from the 1950s to the 1990s, the plan was to connect every American city center that housed 50 000 people or more. The project was brash and unexpected. Quickly, movement and economy of the American people became dependent on the awe-inspiring project.

Though not a national construction project of enormous proportions, Fred VanVleet’s rise through the ranks of the NBA has been equally momentous. The size of a normal human being, he was never supposed to be here; however, he quickly grew into a bench sparkplug, starter, and now an All Star. The movement and the economy of the Raptors have become dependent on his gutsy drives and side-spin triples.

The Raptors have become so reliant on VanVleet that they’ve dispensed with the entire concept of other point guards on the roster. Kyle Lowry is in Miami and Goran Dragic in Brooklyn. Malachi Flynn is injured and Dalano Banton simply an offensive rebounding machine with some passing chops — not a floor general. VanVleet is the map and the compass, the determinant between Toronto’s smooth sailing on open roads or machete-wielding struggle through the vines and weeds of opponents’ defenders.

The Raptors rarely play like a muscle car, outgunning opponents with ease from the starting line. They don’t often put together 48 minutes of freewheeling fun on comfort-cruise highways. But without the lanes that VanVleet provides — to which the Raptors have become accustomed — the Raptors spend more time rattling on rocky roads pebbled with their own inabilities and insecurities.  

As it stands, the Raptors have other modes of transportation to the rim. Pascal Siakam is the futuristic hovercar, teleporting past defenders with his centrifugal spins and violent eurosteps. Scottie Barnes meanders like a train pulling into a station. Precious Achiuwa is bold and shocking, as likely to soar over the competition as crash in the process  — a hot air balloon, let’s call him. But the Raptors don’t have a consistent team-lifting paint threat with a hobbled VanVleet. As good as Siakam is and has been, he doesn’t offer the same rising-tide-lifts-all-boats point guard play as a healthy VanVleet. 

“(Siakam’s isolation play) was kind of what was available, and he was getting deep and he was scoring them,” said Nick Nurse after the game. “It’s a little tricky though, as you probably could tell, it wasn’t getting some of the other guys a lot of touches or in rhythm, but it was what was available. So we had to take it.”

Since Jan. 4, VanVleet has managed four games with multiple made layups. He has 10 games without even a single layup attempted. Against the Boston Celtics, he shot one for four in the paint. In the third quarter against the Celtics, VanVleet found himself facing the lumbering Daniel Theis on a switch. He pulled the ball out to attack and drove, reaching the paint. But before he could make a move, he fumbled the ball into the help defenders’ hands. 

Toronto’s erstwhile dependable and miraculous roadways across the court have shriveled and shrunk, hobbled by natural disaster. Knee injuries are the potholes of the basketball court, the earthquakes, rattling and shivering the dependable. And like potholes, it’s possible this knee might need to be repaired in the summer. Without smooth paths to the paint, VanVleet’s entire economy collapses under the weight of defensive indifference to his rim attempts. He can’t force enough rotations and thus has fewer lanes through which to pass; he finished with three assists against Boston, lacking both the ability to consistently create advantages or to capitalize on ones others managed to cobble together.

Well, we’re certainly having to go other directions offensively,” said Nurse. “Making (him) more of a catch-and-shoot shooter right now… You can probably tell, lots of guys are bringing the ball up the floor and we’re running a few different things than we normally do.”

VanVleet, of course, has found ways to contribute. He’s played more off the ball, hobbling around screens to space the floor for his teammates. He dished 17 assists over two critical games against the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers. He hit a pair of clutch triples against the Celtics to drag Toronto back into the game in the fourth, fingernails clawing and scrabbling on the asphalt in the effort. He stripped Grant Williams clean in overtime under the rim. He will always give everything he has.

I thought he did make a couple really good drives there,” said Nurse. “I mean, he got super determined there somehow. He wasn’t feeling it tonight, and then he still made some huge shots and a couple of huge kick-outs.”

VanVleet is never going to be a negative on the court. He’s too smart, too skilled, and too proud for that. But the Raptors have come to depend on his excellence. More specifically: the All-NBA level of contributions that he churned night in and night out before his knee injury. He can’t do that when he doesn’t threaten the rim, burst through defensive seams, and rain fire on opponents from deep. He’s still a very good player at the moment, but he’s far from the juggernaut that he’s turned himself into.

This of course limits Toronto’s ceiling. The Celtics were without Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams III, and Al Horford. They still played exceptionally. But the healthy Raptors should have had dramatically more talent on the floor than the bench Celtics. They still did despite the injuries. But basketball is more than a mathematical equation pitting talent on one side against talent on the other, and a lack of rim pressure from Toronto’s guard muddied the offense, and Boston’s defensive system clamped down on the weaknesses, regardless of who was in the lineup. (The, shall we say, inclement weather from the uncontrollables on the road, fouling out Siakam and Barnes, certainly did a fair number on Toronto’s performance as well.)

Yet the Raptors still won. Siakam dragged them over the finish line, gas light on, wheels rickety and rattling, bumper practically hanging off the chassis. The Raptors will soon be facing stronger teams. Perhaps, if they manage some wins in the playoffs they’ll face a healthier Celtics team. Right now, VanVleet is chugging along like a beater with miles on the wheels and white knuckles on the wheel. But if the Raptors are going to make real noise in the playoffs, they need VanVleet, knee willing or no, to once again be the smooth and miraculous road on which the team cruises to victory.

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