Raptors’ Delon Wright heating up in Fred VanVleet’s absence

Eric Smith and Michael Grange get us set for Raptors vs. Wizards Game 2, where the Raps look to keep making franchise history and hope to get a huge boost with Fred VanVleet back in the lineup.

TORONTO — It’s painfully played out to start with the weather, but a not insignificant amount of Toronto was covered in a thick layer of ice overnight, tens of thousands lost power, and sheets of jagged ice are literally raining off the CN Tower upon nearby buildings, so here we are.

Delon Wright was one of those who lost electricity Sunday, right as the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder were preparing to tip off. Undeterred, the Toronto Raptors point guard headed to a popular establishment near Air Canada Centre to watch the game and charge his phones. When he returned home, the power was still out, and stayed that way until he awoke Monday morning, bundled up like he was portaging Algonquin.

“I just wore my sweater and some sweats,” Wright said, shrugging. “It was all right.”

We’re all getting through it. Beyond warmth, a more pressing concern for Wright going forward will be how the Washington Wizards respond to his exceptional play in the Raptors’ 114-106 Game 1 triumph. And how he can go about following it up.

Seeing more run than normal in the absence of Fred VanVleet, Wright posed a serious issue for the Wizards at both ends of the floor Saturday, finishing with 18 points, four assists and three steals.

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No Raptor had a higher usage rate than Wright’s 29 per cent, and he led the team with six deflections. Left alone repeatedly beyond the arc, he nailed three of his four three-point attempts, including a pair in the third quarter that helped put the Wizards away.

And one of the game’s most pivotal plays, a C.J. Miles three that put the Raptors up five with 6:30 to play after being down by a point a minute and a half earlier, was only possible due to a deft steal by Wright, who ambushed Kelly Oubre under the Wizards basket:

“He played great,” said Raptors starting point guard Kyle Lowry. “He’s had some games like that this year. Throughout the last couple months, he’s been shooting the ball extremely well. Finishing well. Playmaking extremely well. I just think he’s getting confident and comfortable in his own skin and doing the things that he’s capable of doing.”

Not many teams will be led in usage by their backup point guard in the playoffs, but the Raptors aren’t like most teams. Two of Toronto’s four most-used lineups this season had two point guards on the floor at once, with Lowry the constant, along with either VanVleet or Wright.

Sometimes, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey even deployed lineups with all three on the floor at once, most often with a frontcourt of Pascal Siakam and one of Jakob Poeltl or Lucas Nogueira in a high-energy, free-flowing look that proved difficult for opposition defences to contain.

There are many benefits to running out so many guards simultaneously, but a primary one is it allows Lowry to play off the ball, posing more of a shooting threat and helping space the floor as he draws defensive attention. The vision, decision-making, and ball-handling ability of VanVleet and Wright make that possible.

“Huge — it’s been huge for us,” Casey said. “It just gives us another shooter and ball-handler. And another tough guy. Another smart guy. [VanVleet] has a calming affect on everybody with his maturity, the way he plays.

“He adds a lot to the formula.”

With VanVleet sitting out Saturday’s game due to a sore right shoulder, that onus fell squarely on Wright, who proved up to the task. And it could fall on him against Tuesday. VanVleet remains day-to-day, according to Casey, after going through “most” of Monday’s practice.

The Raptors have been deliberately vague when it comes to VanVleet’s injury, so anything’s possible. If he’s able to go, the Raptors will merely add a playmaker and high-percentage shooter to the 11-man rotation they ran Monday. If he isn’t, Wright’s shown he can take on a larger role and hit the shots he’s presented with.

He won’t hoist three-pointers at the volume that VanVleet does, but he ended the season on a tear, hitting 40 per cent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

“Coaches tell me all the time, ‘If they go under (a screen) just shoot it. We have confidence in you to shoot it,’” Wright said. “So, that always helps. But it’s just a matter of me figuring out if they’re going under on me and how far under they’re going.”

By virtue of spending nearly 25 minutes on the floor, Wright was key to his team defensively, as well, combining with Lowry and OG Anunoby to throw varied looks at ultra-dangerous Wizards guard John Wall. Wright covered Wall on 21 possessions, forcing him into a turnover while holding him to 2-of-5 shooting and two assists.

Wright had less success when covering Bradley Beal, who scored five points on 2-of-2 shooting and dished out an assist in the 10 possessions Wright spent opposite him. With the Raptors utilizing so many multi-guard lineups, Wright will inevitably find himself on Beal again in Game 2. He’d no doubt like to be more effective this time around.

Confidence and consistency will be key. Wright had hot and cold stretches this season, as young players with fluctuating playing time are wont to do. But Wright said he benefitted Saturday from the sheer ferocity of playoff basketball, and entered the game wanting to match the level of competition he was watching from the bench.

“I knew that with Fred being out I was going to have an opportunity to play more and be more of a primary ball handler. I just tried to stay aggressive and find shooters and be in attack mode,” Wright said. “I saw how hard Kyle was playing. I just knew that when I play hard like that, it helps me on both ends. Staying locked in. So, I think it’s just watching the intensity and letting everything else fall into place.”

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