The Toronto Raptors took an ‘L’ before the ball even went up.
The coach’s choices for the seven reserve spots in each conference for the NBA All-Star Game were announced and Fred VanVleet wasn’t among them.
Also missing were Pascal Siakam, a first-time all-star a year ago and Kyle Lowry, who had his string of six straight all-star appearances come to an end, as did the Raptors' record of seven consecutive years with at least one representative in the game.
But it was VanVleet who had the strongest case. In addition to averaging a career-high 20.1 points a game and a team-leading 6.6 assists, the hard-nosed, six-foot point guard leads the NBA in deflections, ranks second in loose balls recovered and seventh in steals per game, with 1.7.
Even more impressive are his ‘advanced’ metrics, which include not only his boxscore stats but team performance when he’s on the floor. By some measures, VanVleet should have been a starter, rather than been snubbed as a reserve.
According to analytics site fivethirtyeight.com, VanVleet is having a better season than LeBron James, trailing only Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid in their player rankings.
It’s not like making your first all-star game, but it’s something.
"Today was the first time I saw some of those advanced stats," said VanVleet after the game. "I don't really care for them, but I guess I could be a fan of them this year. They're in my favour right now …. Shoutout to 538, whatever that is."
In addition to VanVleet’s all-star snub the Raptors stubbed their collective toes in the second of their two-game series against the Philadelphia 76ers at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
The Sixers blitzed the Raptors early and while Toronto -- playing their fourth straight game without Lowry, who has been out with a sprained thumb -- kept grinding away at it they couldn’t reel in the Eastern Conference’s top team as they fell 109-102, ending their four-game winning streak.
It wasn’t VanVleet’s strongest outing either, as he shot just 4-of-14 from the floor. But overlooking the fact that he contributed eight assists, two steals and four blocks is overlooking what really makes the Raptor guard all-star worthy -- even when he’s not scoring he’s moving his team closer to winning.
In that sense it was a perfect encapsulation of VanVleet’s season: night in and night out he’s been a model of consistency, finding ways to move the needle almost independent of his offence, which has been pretty damn good in any case.
“Obviously, you know, I'm human. I'm disappointed. I really, as much as it doesn't matter, it does matter, if that makes sense. I'm not gonna lie and say, 'oh, I don't care.' Obviously I care, and it's something that I want to be a part of someday,” said VanVleet of not getting the all-star nod. “But I think just having the proper perspective on it and the understanding that I'm not going anywhere. This is not going to be my last year being up for an All-Star… but I don't play for that. I try to play the game the right way.
“And also it's too much real s--- going on the world for me to be crying about making the All-Star Game, you know what I'm saying? I don't want to go anywhere. Let's go with that narrative. I'mma be salty and be a sore loser. I didn't want to go. How about that?"
That fits too, as the Raptors weren’t going to go anywhere all night even after getting off to such a slow start. They kept pushing, trying to find a way back into the game.
The Raptors were down six with 5:05 to play and it looked like they were positioning themselves to complete a comeback from down 21 in the first half, but the Sixers were able to respond with a quick 7-0 run on their way to what seemed like an insurmountable 17-point lead with 1:48 to play. But in a final closing flurry, the Raptors launched a 14-3 run that cut the Sixers lead to six with 21 seconds to play before the Sixers closed it down from the line.
Toronto held the Sixers to 41 per cent from the floor and continued their hex over MVP candidate Joel Embiid, who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds but was just 3-of-13 from the floor -- although he was 11-of-12 from the free-throw line. But the Raptors couldn’t connect from deep as they finished 11-of-37 from beyond the arc. The Sixers shot 17-of-38 and took 30 free throws to 13 for Toronto, and combined it was too much for the Raptors to overcome.
Toronto fell to 16-16 as they get set to travel to Miami for a game Wednesday night while the Sixers improved to 21-11.
Toronto’s defence was fine in the fourth quarter -- Embiid was being bodied by Aron Baynes and swarmed by everyone else and the Sixers were just 6-of-18 from the floor in the period -- but Toronto was 7-of-26 from deep at that point and was struggling to make up ground.
Philly set the tone early as they knocked down seven threes in the first quarter alone and sprinted out to 37-18 lead in part thanks to Furkan Korkmaz -- starting in place of injured Seth Curry -- who was 4-of-6 on his own. Things levelled off somewhat in the second quarter as the Raptors forced the Sixers into five turnovers in the quarter that helped them score 11 points in transition, as the Raptors used an 11-0 run to cut what had been a 21-point Sixers lead to a more manageable 55-42 deficit at the half.
Falling behind by that much that early is hardly a recipe for success, but the Raptors have made a habit of using all 48 minutes to keep finding ways to unlock the game and in this case they just about did.
"I think we're getting to that point though where, I've always said when you flip on a Raptors game that you’ve got some sense of pride in the way these guys play,” said Nurse. “And I think we're there now, playing hard, we don't give in, we don't give up, we'll fight back from deficits we'll try to find a way. You know, guys are injured, whatever, we'll try to fight as hard as we can and that, for me, I can always live with, I can always live with it. I think we did give it a great effort tonight. Maybe a half a step slow till we got into it, but finished it really hard and stayed through the full 48. And just some nights you just don't quite shoot it well enough or the breaks don't go your way.”
The next goal is to prove that having all-stars in the lineup isn’t a required ingredient for a successful season.