Experience teaches Raptors’ VanVleet not to rush back from injury

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet celebrates with teammates in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Andy Clayton-King/AP)

SAN FRANCISCO – There are two things Fred VanVleet enjoys and is good at that have been a problem since he sprained his left shoulder running into Giannis Antetokounmpo 10 days ago or so. He’s optimistic that as he gets closer to full strength, both will soon resume their proper place in his on- and off-court life, respectively.

“Everyone always asks me what it is [that bothers the shoulder] and I tell them it’s shooting and sleeping, two things I do pretty well and I’ve been struggling [with] the past few days,” VanVleet said as the Raptors were about to leave for Sacramento on Saturday afternoon in advance of their game against the Kings on Sunday night. “But I’m feeling good now and hopefully we’ll see how today goes and I’ll get back out there sooner than later.”

There is some cautious optimism that VanVleet will be back in the lineup after a four-game absence and that Marc Gasol might even join him after missing the Raptors’ past 15 games with a hamstring injury.

“I’m getting better each day. I’m nearing that point where it feels good enough to go but there’s still a little pain so just trying to work myself back,” said VanVleet, who has missed 14 games this year due to injury. “So we’ll get to the gym today [Saturday] and see how it feels, but I would definitely like to be out there. Obviously there are no guarantees. I could wake up and feel like crap and not be able to go. It’s one of those annoying ones. It has been frustrating to say the least but the guys have been holding it down.”

‘Guys holding it down’ has been the story of the Raptors season as they slog through a seemingly endless string of minor-yet-significant injuries. Of their top eight players in minutes-per-game, seven have missed at least 11 games through the first 62 — the exception being OG Anunoby, who has missed only one.

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But there is a good reason the Raptors are 44-18 and stand second in the East and third in the NBA. The team has proven far deeper than had been projected out of training camp. Remarkably, seven different players have had 30-point games so far this season. The only other team that can match that this year is the Philadelphia 76ers.

Necessity has created opportunity and a number of different players have seized it.

“Any time you can have someone who can get hot and kind of carry a portion of the game is always a big lift,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “Look back to last year’s playoffs. You could name a lot of guys who had huge nights. Fred, Pascal [Siakam], Serge [Ibaka], Kyle [Lowry] Marc … Norm [Powell] snuck a couple in there, too.

“I think scoring the ball becomes a premium in the playoffs and if you have some guys who can get hot, who can create their own [shot], who can read the game and play off double teams and things like that it’s critical.”

But with 20 games left in the regular season, it would be nice if Toronto could begin getting back to full strength. They have played only 17 games with their ideal starting lineup.

In the meantime, the Raptors’ depth has become a rallying point.

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“I was telling Terence [Davis] when we went to dinner last night that is what it is about at the end of the year. You have to have dudes, guys who can make a play,” said VanVleet, who has had two of his three career 30-point games this season and his averaging a career-best 17.6 points per game. “It would be great if all seven scored 30 in the playoffs, but the capability is there and you have seen that.

“… We have the capability, we have the depth, we have the talent and the hard part is doing it when everyone is all together. We will have some games here toward the end of the year to get everybody back hopefully and see what we look like. But we definitely have a very deep, talented team and that is all you can ask for going forward.”

VanVleet – and the Raptors as a whole – have come to realize that there is no point rushing back before injuries are fully healed. He can draw on his own experience when he separated his right shoulder in the last game of the regular season in 2018 and was a shadow of himself when he rushed his return for Game 2 of Toronto’s first-round series against the Washington Wizards. He lasted only three minutes. He made it back for game six and stayed in the lineup for the Raptors’ second-round sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but VanVleet shot 33 per cent from the floor and 28.6 per cent from deep for the playoffs.

The lesson? Get healthy.

“I was laughing about it because when I separated my shoulder I tried to come back in like four days [in 2018],” VanVleet said. “So this one has been longer than that and it’s not anywhere near that severity. I got a pretty high pain tolerance, unfortunately, and that gets me in trouble some times.

“So I’m just trying to take the proper rest and make sure I’m where I need to be long term for this team and this playoff run that we are trying to put together. Because it did inhibit me a lot in that playoff series three years ago. I couldn’t shoot the way I needed to. I couldn’t make a shot, so just got to make sure I am all the way right. As hard as that is, I know it is the right thing to do.”

It helps when you know that there is always someone else who can toss up a 30-spot and keep things on course.

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