‘Steady Freddy’ helps Raptors navigate up and down Game 1 vs. Nets


Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) goes up to shoot past Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen (31) and guard Garrett Temple (17) during the second half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)

For a guy who started the game with some dust in his eyes, Fred VanVleet’s vision was exceptional as he led the Toronto Raptors in every facet of their Game 1 win in their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets.

But then again, outside of perhaps Kyle Lowry, no one knows better where the Raptors need to go and how to get there than VanVleet, who has somehow packed what? A dozen years of NBA experience into a four-year career?

For VanVleet, getting through the pre-game introductions without turning into a puddle was his first test.

The Raptors surprised their starters when – borrowing an idea from the Phoenix Suns – they had family members do their best impressions of Mark Strong, whose full-throated player introductions are performance art that typically electrifies a packed Scotiabank Arena before a playoff game.

These are different times, so the Raptors changed things up and it was one of those gestures that really hit home. The Raptors will have been away from their families for eight weeks now and if they reach their goal of repeating as NBA champions the separation could be eight weeks more.

So the expression on VanVleet’s face when his little ones – Sanaa, who will be three in January and Fred Jr. who was born (as any good Raptors fan will remember) during the Eastern Conference Finals last May appeared on screen at AdventHealth Arena on campus at Walt Disney World Resort – were on screen, so near yet so far, was joyously tinged with a little bit of sad.

“It meant the world, man,” said VanVleet. “I think anybody who knows me knows how special my family is, especially my kids. (I) miss my girl, miss my mom, I miss everybody, man. Family is the No. 1 thing in my life. So, obviously, I’ve been missing them. I’ve been gone about eight or nine weeks now, it’s the longest I’ve been without seeing my kids. So that was really cool to see that before our playoff game at that. I definitely got a little teary-eyed there seeing my son get animated and hearing from my daughter. So that felt really cool.”

So was VanVleet who had the fingers on the pulse of a 134-110 win to open their best-of-seven series, a game in where Toronto both looked the part of a dominant, deep championship team that can completely dismantle a lesser opponent, and one that can be had if it doesn’t have all its parts moving in sync.

Bridging the two stages of the game was VanVleet who picked up where he left off when he couldn’t miss a shot in the latter half of the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals.

VanVleet’s playoff career-high 30 points Monday came on 15 shots — he was 8-of-10 from deep — while he still managed to distribute 11 assists, making it the highest-scoring double-digit assist game in franchise playoff history.

VanVleet helped the Raptors to a quick start, penetrating the paint at will and scoring or passing accordingly as Toronto led by 33 in the first half.

And then, as the Nets cut Toronto’s lead to nine entering the third quarter, he was critical when it reasserted its will in the fourth to put the game away as the Raptors outlasted the Nets 29-24 in the fourth.

At every important point of the game, there was VanVleet, who either scored or assisted on 15 the Raptors playoff record 22 threes on 44 attempts.

“Freddy hit them on some unders a little bit,” explained Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “We set some ball screens and they (the Nets defenders) were going under (and0 Freddy’s pretty good at either stopping right behind and shooting, or the other side before (the defender can get there).

“As far as his assisted ones, he just made the right plays, either throw-ahead in transition or — playing the screen and roll — he’d get into the paint and find the kick out.

“Stating the obvious, he was awesome tonight for sure.”

The Raptors defensive chops were on display early as VanVleet and Lowry took turns hounding Nets’ leading scorer Caris LeVert. Having averaged 25 points a game for the surprising Nets in the bubble, the Raptors took aim at him and held him to 15 points on 5-of-14 shooting, and while his 15 assists were noteworthy, so were his five turnovers.

Offensively, VanVleet heated up for 14 points while making four straight threes in the second quarter – his last one giving the Raptors what seemed like an insurmountable lead as he helped them jump out to a 68-35 advantage with just over four minutes left in the first half.

Clearly the Raptors were playing with purpose, even if they were far from their families and Jurassic Park was sitting empty.

“I think the atmosphere is, obviously, night and day (compared to playing at Scotiabank Arena) so we didn’t really get that playoff atmosphere in terms of that, but I thought we hyped ourselves up,” said VanVleet. “I thought this is the most locked-in we’ve been all year, it felt like guys were amped up and energized, and having won one (championship) it kinda puts you at a peace throughout the year and now it’s time to get into gear.

“So I thought we were pretty engaged, I loved our energy, our attentiveness and focus and that’s all you can really ask for, you can’t duplicate 20,000 of the best fans in the world, so, we just gotta go out there and create our own energy and I thought we did a good job of that.”

But the rare is the playoff game that goes entirely to plan, let alone a series or — as the Raptors learned a year ago — an entire championship run.

After jumping out to their big lead, Toronto surrendered a 16-5 run to close the second quarter and a 16-4 run midway through the third that allowed the Nets to head into the fourth trailing only by nine. Offensively, they sputtered as the transition opportunities dried up and the Raptors’ ball movement got a bit gluey.

But VanVleet remained in control, constantly taking the temperature of the game, looking for brush fires to put out or weaknesses to exploit.

VanVleet never panicked – has he ever?

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Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, he hit his seventh three, assisted on one by OG Anunoby and then hit his eighth triple to push the Raptors’ lead to 15 with just under nine minutes to play and Toronto was back on track, its destination back in view.

“I think I just try to feel where the game is going, possession by possession,” said VanVleet. “What’s the defence is giving up? Who needs some touches? Like I still try to approach it, as much as the game has gone to scoring for guards, I just try to take that real point-guard approach and just see what’s available.

“So, whether it’s true or not, I feel like I can get my shot up at any time, especially with how the defences are playing me. So just being patient and feeling the game and they were making a big run so I wanted to be a little bit more aggressive in the second half and the third quarter to kind of hold them off a little bit and then fourth-quarter time is who’s hot at that time … but I was able to find my looks and they kept finding me and I was able to knock down some open ones. Just try to do whatever it takes to win.”

If VanVleet has a trademark it’s that he can always find a way and his teammates trust his vision. Seeing clearly was a little tougher than normal when it suddenly got a bit dusty in what is supposed to be an antiseptic bubble.

But VanVleet never lost sight of what his team needed.

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