On the surface, Gandalf and Pippin were unlikely allies. On one hand, Gandalf was very tall and Pippin very short. But more than that, the stern and powerful wizard only took the mischievous hobbit with him to Minas Tirith so as to keep Pippin out of trouble. Separately, they had achieved much. Gandalf had discovered the secret plans of the enemy, traveled across the world to gather allies, and set Gandalf and the Fellowship on the quest to save the world. Pippin had saved Frodo from the Uruk-Hai and always kept the spirits of his companions high. But together they did no less than save Minas Tirith.
Fred VanVleet is, by listed height, tied for the 12th-shortest player in the NBA. (In truth he is shorter than that.) Yet when he was injured, the Raptors replaced him with Christian Koloko, tied for the sixth-tallest player in the league. And the team performed well with either in the starting lineup. Yet against the Chicago Bulls, with both VanVleet and Koloko starting, the Raptors were unleashed.
Rumours of VanVleet’s demise were greatly exaggerated while he was out with back soreness. Sure, the Raptors won some impressive games with VanVleet in street clothes, but it was against generally inferior competition, and the team had some unseasonably warm shooting. Plus, Pascal Siakam was around to loft the franchise on his spinny yet shockingly strong shoulders. With Siakam gone, the remaining Raptors needed to offer sterner stuff.
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VanVleet especially was phenomenal. Finishing with 30 points on only 22 shots and 11 assists compared to just one turnover, VanVleet was the picture of efficiency. The diversity of his role was magnificent, too. He started the game letting Scottie Barnes run the show, but the result was a failure of halfcourt offense. Toronto didn’t have a paint touch on its first several possessions, and Barnes wasn’t creating advantages on static sets. VanVleet took over, running pick and rolls with Christian Koloko; one created a lob dunk for the gigantic center and another a 3-pointer for Barnes on the weakside after the defense collapsed to take away Koloko as a target. And that was just the first quarter.
The intermingling of discussion about VanVleet and Koloko isn’t a bug of narrative, but a reality of gameplay. It’s impossible to discuss the success of VanVleet without including Koloko’s performance. The latter could be the best roll target with whom VanVleet has ever played. He is a huge target on the roll, and he has maybe the largest catch radius of any Raptor since Lucas Nogueira. VanVleet and Koloko connected on at least three lobs out of the pick and roll against the Bulls, but the impact of that play rippled out to so many other instances.
The VanVleet-Koloko pick and roll forced the defense to collapse. That is an offensive advantage. The Raptors have not had enough advantage creators on static plays outside of Siakam. And with him sitting, it was iffy whether the Raptors would be able to move the defense enough to create consistent scoring chances when the defense was set. VanVleet didn’t do it on his own, but he and Koloko combined to shred any defense in front of them.
VanVleet navigated brilliantly, throwing sprayouts to corner shooters after their defenders left to tag Koloko. He whipped passes to cutters for layups. He hit the paint and rocketed the ball to the top of the key for uncontested drives in his wake. He relocated after passing to draw the defense after him, opening the lane. All of that flowed from his threatening the defense when he touched the paint. And he did have some layups in the crowd, as well as drawn free throws, but his ability to turn Koloko into a scorer out of the pick and roll accomplished the same objective. VanVleet did what any star does, what Siakam usually does: touch the paint, force the defense and adapt, and turn that into points (whether his own or his teammates’). That VanVleet did it with an assist from a rookie was all the more inventive. Later, after VanVleet established himself, he turned into a killer off the ball, jetting around stagger screens and wide pindowns to launch into catch-and-shoot triples. He unlocked one strength by establishing the first, and VanVleet led the Raptors from jump with his offensive manipulation.
Koloko’s real claim to fame against the Bulls came on the other side of the court. He annihilated all comers around the rim, putting the block in blockade. At one point he blocked Patrick Williams three times in under two minutes, the first coming from behind to surprise the forward, the second coming from the side, and the final one taking Williams head-on.
Koloko finished with six swats. He would have had significantly more if the Bulls had continued challenging him around the rim, but they simply stopped trying. He turned the paint into a no-fly zone and was huge in forcing Chicago into shooting 47.4 percent at the rim, a third-percentile mark, according to Cleaning the Glass.
VanVleet and Koloko weren’t alone in beating the Bulls. O.G. Anunoby was spectacular on both ends, scoring a hyper efficient 22 points with nary a play called for him, subsisting only on second-side drives, spot-up jumpers, and runouts in transition. He was the boogeyman on defense, as per usual. Barnes scored, albeit efficiently, but he was great at mixing in playmaking with VanVleet, as the two looked for one another when taking turns running point guard. He cut well and hit some triples. Chris Boucher was fantastic off the bench, which he has done seemingly every game in a row for all of eternity at this point.
But not even Gandalf and Pippin didn’t defend Minas Tirith alone. They needed help. Plenty of it, from the Gondorians themselves as well as the Rohirrim who arrived late (and the Army of the Dead after them). They simply led the charge, the White Wizard and the Guard of the Citadel combining forces to work wonders. They were an unlikely pair, perhaps made most evident by virtue of height. But Gandalf had long history in such epic situations. Pippin was a newcomer.
VanVleet and Koloko are a similarly unlikely pair. VanVleet is a veteran, a champion and All Star, who has seen it all and changed his game over and again to improve in the NBA. Koloko is a rookie, complete newcomer to the NBA, who has blocked some shots and gotten in a fight with Caleb Martin. VanVleet hit five triples against the Bulls and Koloko airballed his only attempt. The two are dissimilar in more ways than height. But they won the war of attrition by combining forces, by unlocking the pick and roll on one end and denying the paint on the other.
VanVleet and Koloko won’t both be starting when the Raptors are healthy. VanVleet will remain an entrenched star while Koloko will return to the bench. Their paths will diverge, perhaps for long periods. But the Raptors have learned that the duo can wedge themselves into defensive gameplans, can unlock advantages, and can prop up a halfcourt offense. That’s a significant lesson, and Toronto is desperately trying to find as many such tricks as it can while Siakam is out. Because later, perhaps in the playoffs, Siakam might be on the bench to start the fourth quarter, with the Raptors in a close game. They will know they can turn once again to VanVleet and Koloko, tiny and gargantuan, experienced and raw, to conjure some unlikely magic in times of great needs.