And we mean, from deep. Well beyond the top of the three-point line, which measures 23-feet, nine inches.
VanVleet was feeling it and pulled the trigger on a pair of triples from far enough back that you could roll a grocery cart between him and the line. You could almost call it social distancing.
On the first one, at the 7:52 mark of the quarter, VanVleet accepted a screen from Serge Ibaka while standing on the ‘C’ in the Black Lives Matter logo, about 12 feet past the line on the right wing before taking a couple of quick dribbles and pulling up from 28 feet.
On the next one, roughly a minute later, it’s Marc Gasol setting the screen even further out as VanVleet lets it fly from 30. Same result.
The consecutive makes put the Raptors up by 23 as they surged to what would ultimately be a 33-point first-half bulge. But they weren’t merely a case of VanVleet playing loose and free in a game the Raptors appeared to have in hand.
Early in the fourth quarter after the Magic had cut the Raptors’ lead to nine, VanVleet stepped into threes from 26 and 27 feet, making the first one and sparking a 14-6 run that helped Toronto regain control of the game and earn the win to go up 1-0 with Game 2 scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at Walt Disney World Resort.
It was all part of a playoff opener where VanVleet recorded a new personal best with eight threes on 10 attempts and the Raptors set a franchise playoff record with 22 threes on 44 attempts.
But VanVleet’s big game and his ability to make threes from well beyond the line is by design, the need for which was driven home in the first two rounds of the playoffs last year – before he famously caught fire in the Eastern Conference Finals. After a strong first game against Orlando, VanVleet shot just 21.7 per cent over his next 14 games and an ugly 7-of-44 over one 10-game stretch, struggling mightily to find open looks from deep in particular against bigger wings such as those the Philadelphia 76ers could roll out against him in the second round. Things got so bad that by Game 4 of the Sixers series VanVleet had nearly fallen out of the rotation.
“It really started when I got hurt last year, the championship year, when I was out with my thumb. [Extending my range] was something that me and Nick [Nurse] talked about,” he said. “So, I started putting it in my game and I’ve just been working on it more and more since then.
“Obviously with the playoffs coming up, it’s a little bit harder to get your shot off, and guys are flying around a little bit more. If you can knock it down from distance, it just makes it that much harder for the defence to run out to you, and sometimes you catch ’em off guard or you just avoid that extra couple inches of hand to contest. So just trying to find good looks, and I felt like I worked myself into good position where I feel comfortable at that distance, and kinda anything to get my shot off at this point.”
In his first three years in the league VanVleet took about 29 per cent of his three-point attempts from beyond 26 feet and only 14 per cent were taken from 27 feet and out. But this past season 42 per cent of his threes were taken from more than two feet behind the line and more than a quarter — 27 per cent – were from three feet back.
“It probably came a little bit out of necessity,” said Nurse. “He was not getting shots off, he was getting a few blocked and we needed him. We needed his spacing and his three-point shooting so we just decided, well, if he backed up maybe five feet, maybe they wouldn’t be able to get to him as quick and he went to work on it.
“Give him credit, he really started working on it, working on it and I think it just continues to grow from there. His range just keeps getting farther and farther out, which is good.”
The additional distance doesn’t seem to affect his accuracy, as VanVleet converted at 36.7 per cent from 27 feet and beyond, compared with his 39 per cent rate on threes overall.
But having two primary ball-handlers – the Raptors ‘other’ point guard, Kyle Lowry, was at the forefront of the move back movement – not only creates better looks for VanVleet, but it alters the geometry of the offensive end of the floor more to Nurse’s liking.
“It’s just again more spacing,” the Raptors head coach said. “And it’s hard to guard if a guy can shoot it at a really high clip eight-feet behind the line. It’s really hard to guard.”
The Raptors already put teams in uncomfortable situations because they routinely have five players on the floor who can all shoot threes and otherwise exploit the room in the paint when the defence has to extend to guard all five players at the three-point line. But having players who require the defence to extend four or five feet above the arc makes it that much more difficult.
“That was the first thing that was revealed [in the tape] was taking a look at [VanVleet’s] shots and seeing how deep they were,” Nets interim head coach Jacque Vaughn said. “And so, we might be able to be into the ball a little more to give him a little bit better feel coming off pick-and-roll, but overall we do have to balance those guys turning the corner and getting into our paint and creating foul opportunities. So those are the things we still have to be aware of, but we will give them different looks so, hopefully, that open three, even if from deep, doesn’t look as open.”
Golden State Warriors sniper Steph Curry changed the perception of what a “good” three-point attempt was during his back-to-back MVP seasons in 2015 and 2016 as he proved that taking threes from 27 feet and out and often off the dribble were game-changers if you could make them at a high clip. No player in the league has perfected the deep three more than Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, who shot 41 per cent on shots from 27-40 feet this season on more than five attempts per game.
With Lillard earning bubble MVP honours by putting up 37.6 points a game as he led the Blazers’ rush to the playoffs, it’s hard not to acknowledge the gains offered by adding more range.
VanVleet hasn’t got too technical about how he’s managed to add an extra few feet to his jumper – he just gets them up and they’re going in.
“I’m not tracking ’em, so I don’t have analytics for you,” he said. “But I feel pretty good in my workouts when I’m shooting ’em. I think probably 24 to 25, 27 [feet] is all the same for me right now, and then obviously you start to go to 30, 35 [feet], you probably get a drop-off there.
“But if I feel like I’m open, I’m not really worried about the line and where I’m at,” he said. “I’m just trying to get one up.”
Where he shoots it from is the Nets problem.