5 things: Fred VanVleet’s knee issue is becoming a major concern

Chicago Bulls' Zach LaVine, right, drives two the basket as Toronto Raptors' Fred VanVleet defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 21, 2022, in Chicago. The Bulls won 113-99. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Here are five takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 113-99 loss to the Chicago Bulls.

1. The Raptors ran out of gas in the third quarter. The Raptors were showing signs of fatigue early on, as they weren’t able to win the hustle battle in terms of offensive rebounding and creating turnovers, but at least their offensive execution was sharp. That all fell apart midway through the third quarter.

The Raptors went on their usual dry spell, going over five minutes without a made basket, and they couldn’t rely on their defence to keep them in the game. Zach LaVine made three plays in a row, where he caught Fred VanVleet not boxing out for a putback, capitalized on Scottie Barnes’ miscommunication on a screen for an open jumper, and torched Chris Boucher’s late closeout for a layup.

These were all mistakes of fatigue, and once the Raptors got down, they never were able to muster the energy for a comeback.

2. Even though the Raptors have a winning record on the second night of back-to-backs, this was always going to be a difficult game. Since the All-Star break, the Raptors have played 15 games with 10 off days in between. Outside of a three-game roadstand that lasted all of four days, and a back-to-back in Los Angeles, the Raptors have literally boarded a flight to a different city every other game.

OG Anunoby has not played a single game due to a lingering finger injury that refuses to heal, VanVleet can still play on his knee but is clearly limited and is resting whenever possible, Gary Trent Jr. has joined the injury report with a toe problem, and that leaves them fighting uphill on a nightly basis. Every team faces injuries, and everyone plays 82 games in a season, but this is a brutal stretch and although they have been defiant, this was a clear example of exhaustion catching up to them.

With all due respect to the Bulls and their performance, this was simply a scheduled loss for the Raptors.

3. The Raptors continue to be prone to long droughts on offence. The Bulls adjusted their coverages in the second half to bring increased pressure against Pascal Siakam, who had 16 points in the first half. Siakam found very few chances to play one-on-one, and took just three shots after halftime although he did get to the foul line.

With Siakam neutralized, however, the Raptors struggled to create, as they went over five minutes without a basket in the third quarter while the Bulls pulled ahead. Barnes was too exhausted to attack, while VanVleet was too limited physically to consistently beat strong perimeter defenders in Alex Caruso and Ayo Donsunmu. Throw in a lack of energy to chase the offensive glass, coupled with the absence of Trent Jr., who had averaged 22 points in the three previous meetings with Chicago, and the Raptors were toast.

There was a stark difference in how hard the Raptors had to struggle to create offence, while the Bulls’ stars just played their normal game and got their points.

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4. VanVleet’s knee is a major concern. He shot 7-for-22 from the field, and while some of that is him missing open looks from deep as part of his 3-for-12 performance from distance, there are noticeable moments where he looked pained and limited. On a layup in the third quarter, VanVleet took off full speed and contorted his body mid-air to create the angle for his basket, but he landed on his right leg and limped back on defence. After the game, VanVleet said that his knee is not responding to rest, and that while he is pushing through it at the moment, other options may need to be explored.

5. Nick Nurse went back to his dual-centre lineup with Precious Achiuwa and Khem Birch. Nurse said after the win over Philadelphia that he didn’t like how they meshed, yet he returned to the same look 24 hours later.

Offensively, there doesn’t seem to be enough between the two of them and it cramps spacing for Siakam, Barnes, and VanVleet to operate. Achiuwa was confident from deep, but he was misfiring at the start and turning down looks by the end. Birch was much more effective on offence, especially in the pick-and-roll game, but Birch also took turns camping out in the corners where he misfired. Defensively, it made more sense as Birch did a good job of limiting his former Magic teammate Nikola Vucevic, while Achiuwa’s coverage against DeMar DeRozan was disciplined despite DeRozan refusing to miss.

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