Who was going to help? Who was going to quit watching Fred VanVleet revving the engine to the red line, fuel tank on empty, and get themselves up to speed?
The Toronto Raptors were staring down a four-game losing streak Thursday night, but VanVleet wasn’t having it.
From the minute the ball went up he was determined to lift his team and avoid following up a dud outing against Boston with another in Philadelphia.
But he needed someone else to step up. Someone off the bench. Anyone.
The Raptors responded. The fight was there. Chris Boucher found his game for the first time this season, the relief palpable. Scottie Barnes came to life in the third quarter and Svi Mykhailiuk did his part down the stretch and off the bench.
And then OG Anunoby took over as the primary ball-handler to make two textbook plays late in the shot clock and late in the game to set up threes for Gary Trent Jr. and then for VanVleet — who else — whose sixth triple of the night with 24.8 seconds left iced it as Toronto closed a gutty effort on an 8-0 run.
The Raptors’ 115-109 win improved Toronto to 7-6 on the season with one more home date (Saturday) before a daunting six-game road trip after that.
It’s a team game and all of that, but sometimes one player can drag a team along, and that’s what VanVleet did, at least until a few more hands began to pull in the same direction.
“When we come out and Freddy’s getting some buckets and making plays like that, I think that automatically gives us a boost of spirit and confidence,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “[He was] just all over the place.
“We know that he’s got it going and he’s getting past people and he’s making some shots… I think that was a big spark the way he came out tonight for sure.”
VanVleet finished with a season-high 32 points on 11-22 shooting while adding seven assists in an exhausting 40 minutes. But he got some assistance, too. Boucher came off the bench for a season-best 17 points; Barnes had 13 points, nine rebounds and four assists; Anunoby had 20 points and four assists and Trent Jr. had 20 with four assists also.
The Sixers were without some key pieces but were lifted by Tyrese Maxey who had 15 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter, though it was not enough to halt the Sixers’ losing streak which is now at three as Philadelphia fell to 8-5.
Toronto played to their maximum to take an 81-78 lead into the fourth quarter. They switched to zone defence and finally got some support for VanVleet, who had carried them through the first half. Barnes looked for his shot a bit more in the half-court and had a nice sequence when he dribbled himself open into some mid-range twos while also finding his way to a couple of scores on the offensive glass. He chipped in with three assists also.
There were some welcome signs of life from Boucher, who has struggled badly after missing all of training camp with a dislocated finger and has found himself in a battle for playing time ever since. Boucher looked like his old self with a pair of dunks and his recognizable manic energy.
He came into the game shooting just 33 per cent on the season and his offensive struggles were affecting the rest of his game. After a breakout season a year ago he seemed lost in the shuffle on a deeper Raptors rotation. But with Khem Birch (knee) out, Yuta Watanabe (calf) out, Pascal Siakam being rested and starting centre Precious Achiuwa struggling (he finished 1-of-10 from the floor), Nurse needed someone to fill the available minutes and Boucher delivered.
He scored 10 of 17 points on dunks and putbacks in the third and fourth quarters and chipped in with two blocks also.
“It felt good, I feel like I’ve been searching to get that feeling again, feeling like you’re doing the right thing and in the right spot,” said Boucher, who missed most of training camp and the entire exhibition season after having surgery on a dislocated finger on his left hand. “I’ve been missing that feeling. It felt good to get it back today. I’m not satisfied. These 10 games I played like I couldn’t play or wasn’t the player I’m supposed to [be]. Step by step, but I’m definitely happy about today and I’m gonna keep getting better at it.”
Boucher wasn’t the only bench player to chip in. Mykhailiuk — perhaps the Raptors’ most consistent reserve this season — had a great stretch in the fourth quarter when he turned three offensive rebounds into buckets for others while adding a key three-pointer himself.
One of the beneficiaries of Mykhailiuk’s hustle was Anunoby, who hit a big three to put the Raptors up eight with 4:31 to play. A Mykhailiuk steal and assist set up an Anunoby fastbreak dunk and Toronto was up seven with 3:41 left. At that point Maxey got loose for seven straight points in a 9-0 Sixers run that gave them the lead again. For a beat it seemed like all the Raptors good work would be wasted.
But in the final moments Anunoby calmed things as took the ball at the top of the circle on consecutive possessions, calmly got the match-up he wanted and attacked to paint to set up the game-defining threes by Trent Jr. and VanVleet, who celebrated his with a ‘big balls’ dance in front of Sixers assistant coach Sam Cassel, who popularized it when he was a rookie with the Houston Rockets.
Anunoby’s late-game playmaking marks the next step in his steady growth as a player.
“He’s always been a great, phenomenal talent,” said Trent Jr. “But this year I’ve seen him lead in certain situations, find certain guys, give certain plays up that he can shoot… so just being an ultimate team player.”
“He’s always been a great, phenomenal talent but this year I’ve seen him lead in certain situations, find certain guys, give certain plays up that he can shoot. So just being an ultimate team player.”
The Raptors caught a break in that the Sixers have been dealing with COVID-19 issues: MVP candidate Joel Embiid and all-defence prospect Matisse Thybulle both missed their third and fourth games, respectively, due to health and safety protocols, while Tobias Harris returned after a six-game absence. Sharpshooter Seth Curry — shooting 48.3 per cent from three this season — returned after missing one game.
But the Raptors have their own issues, primarily how to generate offence anywhere else than in transition. The Raptors came into the game ranked 26th in points per play in the half court, according to Cleaningtheglass.com, and that’s even while ranking second in percentage of their own misses they have been able to collect.
No wonder then, that VanVleet was on a mission to get the offence rolling early — or at least moving.
After Toronto was held to 88 points by the Celtics, Toronto’s point guard decided that he would unravel the Raptors’ offensive woes by looking for his own number early and often.
He assisted on the Raptors’ first basket, grabbed a defensive rebound and drove the ball the length of the floor for a lay-up on his next touch, hit a three, knocked down a pair of free throws and then knocked down another three before the game was five minutes old. He scored 15 points in the first quarter as the Raptors hung tough, trailing 30-27.
VanVleet then went on to play all but 38 seconds in the second quarter. Late in the half he took another hit and was sent to the floor for the umpteenth time, but this time he spread his arms wide and lay there for a while, grateful for a chance to recover.
His best efforts weren’t enough. The Sixers used a 16-4 run to open up a 10-point lead late in the second quarter before Toronto cut that in half with scores on the last two possessions before the break.
At that stage VanVleet simply didn’t have enough help. There wasn’t another Raptors player in double figures scoring by halftime as Toronto’s season-long shooting woes continued. Raptors other than VanVleet (5-of-11) were shooting 36 per cent and 25 per cent from three.
It didn’t help too that the Raptors botched away several opportunities in transition with Achiuwa and Boucher combining for a couple each — a season-long pattern
But VanVleet was determined to will his teammates to a bigger effort. He wouldn’t let go of the rope and eventually, they joined him.