TORONTO — Perspective, inspiration, motivation — they can arrive at the strangest times from the most unexpected places. For Toronto Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet, mired in the worst shooting slump of his career at the worst possible time, it came in a hospital in Rockford, Ill., waiting for the birth of his son, Fred Jr., on Monday.
The timing wasn’t perfect — VanVleet’s second child wasn’t due until May 31 — but that he arrived on an off day meant that his father could fly home, be there for his birth and get back Wednesday in time for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
"I just told her [his longtime girlfriend Shontai Neal] she couldn’t have him on a game day and the rest we’ll figure out," said VanVleet. "But he co-operated a little bit."
So add Fred VanVleet Jr. to a lengthy list of contributors in a surprising 120-102 Raptors win that evened their series with the Bucks at 2-2 before they head back to Milwaukee for Game 5 on Thursday night, with Game 6 now scheduled for Toronto on Saturday.
VanVleet Sr. did his part too, breaking out for 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, a sharp departure from the 25.6 per cent shooting – including 19.5 per cent from three – quagmire he’d been mired in for the playoffs.
He led a big night for the Raptors bench in general as Norm Powell chipped in 18 points and Serge Ibaka added 17 points and 13 rebounds as Toronto’s primary three reserves outscored a deep and talented Bucks bench 48-23, the first time the Raptors have won the battle of the benches.
It was desperately needed. Coming into the game there were serious questions about what Raptors cornerstone Kawhi Leonard would have left to give after his 52-minute opus in Game 3 that saw him visibly limping at various points in that game.
The answers came early — not nearly as much as they’ve been accustomed to him providing.
Battered, grimacing, limping. It was clear to anyone who has watched Leonard carry Toronto through so many magical playoff moments that he wasn’t himself.
There was no bounce. His thunder-and-lightning attacks on the rim where he either scatters the weak, casts aside the slow or rises up over the strong, were nowhere to be found.
On the odd occasion, he was willing or able to get to the rim and lift the ball in one of his massive claws. But when he came down it looked like he was in pain: the same right thigh that had cost him nearly an entire season a year ago and had been so carefully managed this season was acting up, angry at being put through so much. And it wasn’t that he simply looked weary, with almost every shot short and some possessions simply spent standing around: One of the best players in the world was a decoy.
"This is one of the nights that we knew Kawhi was a little bit limited," said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who was brilliant with 25 points and six assists in leading the charge as Leonard took a step back. "We had to come out and be aggressive for him. The great thing about having him on your team is he still gets all the attention. We fed off of that — drive, kick, swing. He gets in the lane, kick out. That’s the benefit of having a superstar like him on the team."
The Raptors took advantage, notching a playoff-high 32 assists on 41 field goals while shooting 47 per cent from the floor with six different players in double figures.
It was a departure from the standard storyline of the post-season as the Raptors have at times become almost a vehicle for Leonard to do great things — knock down game-winning, series-winning shots or make game-changing steals or merely put up more points more efficiently than almost anyone ever has.
The not-so-subtle implication is that the supporting cast needs the help. The Raptors know it. They hear it.
"We see all the stuff. We understand what the narrative has turned into, kind of ‘Kawhi Leonard and the Back-up Singers,’" said VanVleet.
"We know. We know we have to be better."
As a group, the bench has taken it personally.
"We have to take it personally," said Ibaka, who played just 14 minutes in Game 3 and had yet to make a mark on the series before sparking the team Tuesday night. "We’re here for a reason, it’s not by mistake we’re here and we showed during the season what the bench can do and when we have a couple of games where we can’t really play our best basketball or can’t really help our team, we take that personally. Everybody."
Game 4 provided their chance — both to have Leonard’s back for all the times this post-season that he’s had theirs and to remind everyone that they can play too.
For VanVleet the stakes were even higher. There was the matter of his son being born and also finding a way out of a slump that has been compounded by shifts in the rotation at times that have seen his minutes fall off, though never disappear, because he’s the only point guard on the roster after Lowry.
He understood where his game was at. He hit a clutch three late in the fourth quarter of Toronto’s double-overtime win in Game 3 but was 1-of-11 for the game. He had a corner three that could have iced it in regulation but missed it. It’s been going that way lately.
"I expect more of myself. It’s tough to not play up to standards," he said. "And being caught up in a bunch of different reasons that nobody really cares about. That’s just the circumstance I’m in. So you’ve just gotta keep focused, keep working, and try to get better between these days. Staying right mentally is a key part of that, and I have the opportunity, and sometimes it comes all at once. That’s just how it happens sometimes."
With Leonard limping it was Lowry who sparked the Raptors early, scoring 12 of Toronto’s first 17 points to blunt a fast start by the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, who scored 11 of his 25 points in the first quarter.
The Raptors were able to take a 32-31 lead after 12 minutes but the first sign that things might be different was that Leonard had scored only three points on four shots in the opening frame and that Toronto was able to go on a 9-0 run to start the second quarter with Lowry on the bench. They surged again with Leonard on the bench later in the quarter as VanVleet stepped into his second triple of the night, as the Raptors took a 65-55 lead into the half even with Leonard being held to five points.
The game split open in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter with both Lowry and Leonard on the bench — usually a recipe for disaster this post-season. Instead VanVleet, Powell and Ibaka helped engineer a 10-3 run that included a VanVleet steal and lay-up, a banked in three and another lay-up in traffic followed by a reverse lay-up by Powell off a VanVleet assist.
"I think he needed it," said Lowry. "Welcome little Freddy Jr. to the building. I think those types of things kind of relaxed him a little bit."
Leonard took notice of the bench contribution. "It was big time," he said after chipping in 19 points in 34 minutes. "Just everybody contributed tonight, knocking down shots, playing great defence."
For VanVleet it was a long time coming. Big moments — like newborns — can arrive unexpectedly.
"It gives you a little perspective on life," he said. "Took a plane ride there, had a lot of time to think, had to sit at the hospital all day, took a lot of time to think and obviously a plane ride back [Tuesday].
"It just changes the way you look at things and to not be so down on yourself about everything and just come in and enjoy the game and the game is great and fun and everybody is happy.
"It’s been a good day."