TORONTO – Fred VanVleet was just happy to be there.
He wasn’t happy with the result. He wasn’t happy that he was on the floor when the Orlando Magic’s D.J. Augustin got hot in the second quarter and wasn’t happy that one more time the Toronto Raptors will enter Game 2 of a playoff series needing to win to avoid putting themselves on the ropes before the post-season has even cleared its throat.
But the Raptors sixth-man, and both the back-up and co-pilot to point guard Kyle Lowry, could find the silver lining after Saturday evening’s frustrating loss in Game 1 of the Raptors’ first-round playoff series.
Mainly? His right shoulder was in one piece and he was able to provide the kind of heady play that has made the undrafted free agent a key Raptors piece the past two seasons.
"It felt good to compete, and be healthy, as healthy as you can be, and just be on an even playing field so to speak," said VanVleet as the Raptors tried to regroup from dropping the opener to the No.7 seeded Magic.
“So it felt good, but you know, it’s not about personal things at this point of the season, it’s about wins and losses, and no matter how well or bad you play, the only thing that matters is getting wins, and obviously we didn’t do that,” he continued. “So nobody’s healthy or satisfied, there’s really nothing to feel good about, you lost and you look and see where you can be better, and come back Tuesday and try to get a win."
VanVleet provided what Lowry couldn’t as the Raptors’ engine sputtered in a way that we’ve seen before — albeit not lately given Lowry’s solid numbers from the last two post-seasons.
VanVleet finished with 14 points in 27 minutes off the bench, knocking down three triples in six attempts. He stepped on the floor with purpose in the first quarter, delivering a pair of quick threes that gave the Raptors some early life and was part of Toronto’s best stretch in the fourth.
Paired in the backcourt with Lowry, VanVleet hit a three to tie the game (assisted by Lowry); sprinted out on a fastbreak to put the Raptors up two (assisted by Lowry) and then pushed the ball ahead to Norman Powell to put the Raptors up four. Toronto eventually went up six with six minutes to play on a tough jump hook in the lane by Pascal Siakam, but things unravelled form there as we know now.
One of the threads the Raptors will need to tidy up for Game 2 is getting more from Lowry, who has had some ups and downs in the post-season with Toronto, but has never gone scoreless.
Before the series, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made the point that Lowry can help his club whether he scores four or 34, such is his overall impact.
Nurse was absolutely right in that respect. Had Lowry scored four instead of going scoreless on seven shots – 0-of-6 from three and 0-of-2 from the foul line – the Raptors might have won Game 1 instead of being on the wrong end of a 104-101 decision.
Point guard is one match-up the Raptors should win in this series, but with Augustin going off for 25 points in 29 minutes it was clear who won the battle in Game 1.
As usual, Lowry was still effective, on paper at least. He finished +11, which was the best for the Raptors, and made him the only Toronto starter in positive territory — in large part because he was on the bench when Augustin went off for 10 quick points in the second quarter.
The Raptors had a 90.1 defensive rating and 64.5 per cent assist rate with him on the floor and 133.3 and 33.3 per cent without him.
But the Raptors aren’t going anywhere they want to get to without Lowry stretching defenses as a three-point threat or collapsing them by bulling his way into the paint.
"I just think he was leading the team pretty well. He had us fighting and battling pretty well," said Nurse. "I thought we were getting pretty good looks. He was getting us into sets that were providing those looks. He was making his defensive plays. He got a charge, he had a nice little strip on another double team. He was fighting like Hell keeping guys off the boards. So there were a lot of positives as far as his play. So what do you say? I say to him you are going to have to take these shots. They are rhythm – of the six threes five of them were wide open. Those are shots he is going to have to take and he is going to continue to take them."
Lowry has had some strong Game 2 performances in recent years – 22 points on 12 shots against Milwaukee two years ago; 20 on 12 shots that same year in Game 2 against the Cavs and 21 points on 10 shots in Game 2 against Cleveland last year.
So there is precedent for a strong bounce back.
But should Lowry continue to misfire, having VanVleet healthy is a welcome cushion. In the last game of the year last season he separated his shoulder running into a screen by the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo.
VanVleet managed to get back into action in Game 2 of the Raptors’ opening round series against the Washington Wizards, but could only play three minutes before it was apparent he wasn’t physically capable of contributing. He got himself back in the lineup for Game 6 and was part of the Raptors sweep by Cleveland, but he was a shadow of himself, connecting on just eight threes in 28 tries.
Nurse is pleased to have options, even if he opted not to pair VanVleet and Lowry to close Game 1 against Orlando as he often has in the past.
"[VanVleet] played pretty good," said Nurse. " Obviously he shot the ball, made some pretty big shots for us, looked pretty good out there."
But VanVleet knows as well as anyone that he can only hold the fort so long if Lowry struggles. Toronto will still need their leader at his best in order to make a dent not only in the Magic but in the rest of Eastern Conference as they take aim at their first NBA Finals appearance.
"You know how it goes. He’s not a player whose points define how impactful he was on the game," said VanVleet. "Obviously, nobody wants to go 0-for-7 in a Playoff game. I think he handled it well. He missed the first two, and you could see it built up a little bit, but he didn’t start pressing or anything. He didn’t turn many down. That’s all you can ask for, that when you get an open one you don’t start second-guessing yourself. If you do that, you’re aggressive enough for me. And if you’ve done a good job of walking that line and getting guys involved and still being able to score.
"As long as he’s still leading, talking, taking charges, yelling at the refs and scratching and fighting then he’s doing his job," said VanVleet. "He does a lot more than score. He’ll make shots. He’s proven it. We’ve got Game 1 out of the way, so I’m looking forward to seeing how he turns out on Tuesday."
Aren’t we all.