Fred VanVleet’s tenacious play setting tone for shorthanded Raptors

In the offseason many NBA experts and pundits had the Raptors taking a major step back in the East. Early signs are indicating that won't be the case.

If the Toronto Raptors — the full-strength, everybody’s healthy and on the floor Toronto Raptors — had returned from their current five-game, nine-day road trip with three wins against two losses it would’ve been a pretty good result. To test themselves against at least three, and perhaps as many as four, Western Conference playoff teams and come away with more success than failure would’ve been extremely encouraging as the Raptors look to establish themselves in a wide open Eastern Conference and keep building towards what lies ahead.

But those Toronto Raptors don’t exist. These Toronto Raptors — who Wednesday night beat the Portland Trail Blazers, 114-106, improving to 3-1 on that road trip so far — are the ones that exist on an alternate and now very real timeline in which the team’s most important player fractured his left thumb on the first game of the trip, the most impactful bench piece severely sprained his ankle the same night, and the most encouraging early-season standout was gouged in the eye less than two minutes into the third game and hasn’t played since.

That these Toronto Raptors have an opportunity to exceed reasonable expectations set before the trip ever began is nothing short of remarkable considering the adversity they’ve faced, travel they’ve withstood and quality of competition they’ve overcome. And if not for a disastrous fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers, played on cement legs in the 12th round of a back-to-back, these Raptors could be looking at a perfect sweep.

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“We just keep raising each other’s levels,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said after Wednesday’s victory. “For us that won a championship, there’s nothing we haven’t seen. No moment’s too big. Down, up, whatever. Injuries, foul trouble, bad shooting nights — just keep playing and have a chance at the end.”

VanVleet deserves a lot of credit for slipping seamlessly into the conductor’s role Kyle Lowry typically fills, driving Toronto’s offence, setting the tone defensively for a cast of depth players thrust into action, and hustling everywhere to do a little bit of everything. He’s carried a massive workload, logging 45 minutes Monday against the Clippers and 40 more Wednesday in Portland. But he’s had to.

Without VanVleet being so active and involved, Pascal Siakam would be left on an island to drive Toronto’s offence when he isn’t being asked to guard a primary threat at the opposite end. But VanVleet’s ability to not only facilitate offence for his teammates, but create it for himself, allows Siakam to better pick his spots and avoid forcing looks that aren’t there.

The added challenge is that with Lowry out of the lineup, the opposition is now focusing its defensive game plans on VanVleet and Siakam. There’s no more flying under the radar and benefitting from opportunities provided as a result of defences trying to take away Lowry and, last season, Kawhi Leonard.

Siakam’s had to navigate double-teams and traps, which he’s played through with mixed results. And VanVleet’s seen an onslaught of big bodies sent his way, as defences use length to dissuade him from shooting in close coverage or trying to finish layups in the paint.

The size of Landry Shamet and Maurice Harkless made the Clippers matchup especially tough on VanVleet, as he finished 6-of-20 from the field and 1-of-6 from distance. But playing against Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons Wednesday night in Portland, VanVleet took advantage of the additional space he had to operate, going 10-of-16 from the field (4-of-6 from beyond the arc) including several strong finishes at the rim.

Consider the image below. On the left is VanVleet’s shot chart against the Clippers. On the right is his shot chart from Wednesday in Portland. After the Clippers did a good job of keeping VanVleet away from the basket, he returned to finishing right at the rim throughout his 30-point performance against the Trail Blazers:

But more than anything, it’s been VanVleet’s composure in challenging situations, command of Toronto’s game plans, and relentlessness under a heavy minutes load that’s made him invaluable to the Raptors over this stretch, and filled the general void Lowry’s injury created.

“That’s his biggest quality — he’s a tremendous leader and he’s a great competitor,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet Wednesday night. “His IQ, his toughness, and his competitiveness are what make him a special player.”

That turns up most on the defensive end. Nurse has deployed aggressive, hounding defensive strategies against the star players his teams have come up against on this road trip, and it’s impossible to argue with the results:

Game Player FG% PTS +/- TOV
Nov. 10 vs. LAL LeBron James 33% (5-of-15) 13 -6 2
Nov. 11 vs. LAC Kawhi Leonard 18% (2-of-11) 12 12 9
Nov. 13 vs. POR Damian Lillard 17% (2-of-12) 9 -13 2

VanVleet’s been heavily involved in that, and on Wednesday night was the first line of defence against Lillard. That meant that after every one of his finishes at the rim — some that resulted in him crashing to the baseline floor — VanVleet had to quickly pivot and sprint back to the defensive end to pick up Lillard and either funnel him towards help when he had the ball in hand or deny him space when he was working off of it.

That the Raptors were so successful in bottling up Lillard on a night that VanVleet was so heavily involved in the offence is a massive credit to his work ethic and hustle. Not to mention Nurse’s schemes and game planning during a week in which practice time has been non-existent.

Toronto’s defensive strategy against the stars it’s faced is not as simple, of course, as merely putting two players on the opponent’s best guy. Life’s about nuance. Toronto’s defenders had to in-game problem-solve the timing and execution of their blitzes and traps against James or Leonard or Lillard, quickly deciphering screens and pick-and-rolls and making quick decisions about when to be aggressive, when to cut off a drive, and when to sit back in a zone.

Everyone has to be on the same page, everyone has to know their assignment, and everyone has to be able to react quickly to a changing assignment when another defender makes his move. The mirepoix of that secret sauce is intelligence and effort. It’s cliché hearing every Raptor described as “a high basketball IQ guy,” but an ability to process, anticipate, and make quick decisions on the court is clearly something the organization has prioritized when acquiring talent.

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You can say the same of sheer energy and will. VanVleet and Siakam’s acumen in this department is well established by now. But what we’ve seen over these last few games is that depth players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Terence Davis, and Chris Boucher possess some of the same traits.

Hollis-Jefferson has been particularly useful, after being thrust into a primary defensive assignment in the wake of OG Anunoby’s eye injury. His motor and length clearly bothered the superstars he was up against, as the 24-year-old stuck to them with quick feet, throwing his hands into every passing lane that materialized and forcing them into uncomfortable looks at the basket.

Is what we’re seeing from some of Toronto’s ancillary players a result of Toronto’s talent identification and development? Is it a response to Nurse’s tough love and intuitive coaching since the beginning of training camp? Is it mere osmosis from the leadership and examples set by players like Siakam and VanVleet? It’s a mixture, of course. It all plays a part.

And it’s all brought the Raptors to where they are now, with an opportunity to finish what could be their toughest road trip of the season on an inspiring high in the face of some extremely unfortunate injury events. The trip’s already a success, no matter what happens in Saturday night’s game against the Dallas Mavericks. But another win could make it a wild one.

“For us, it’s just been battle after battle,” Siakam said after Wednesday’s game. “I think it just shows the toughness of the team. Banged up, we just don’t give up. We’re going to continue to go out there every single day, give our best effort — and whatever comes after that we can’t control. The only thing we can control is what effort we have. And I think we’ve been having pretty good efforts so far.”

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