With a supernova performance, VanVleet decides he won’t let Raptors lose

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) drives between Utah Jazz forward Elijah Hughes (33) and centre Udoka Azubuike (20) during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Friday, January 7, 2022. (Frank Gunn/CP)

That wasn’t supposed to happen.

The Toronto Raptors were supposed to have a laugher. They were supposed to be able to empty their bench. They were supposed to keep their winning streak alive and not have to get too stressed about it.

The Utah Jazz arrived in Toronto short-staffed due to health-and-safety protocols and, seemingly, decided to take the hint and hold out just about everyone else they could, with a variety of vague-sounding injuries.

They ended up with eight players coming out for warm-ups, two of them hardship signees on 10-day contracts, one who joined the team Friday. Their pair of two-way players started.

But the Raptors chose to make things difficult for themselves, gifting the Jazz a 15-point lead in the first quarter, a 13-point lead at half and were trailing by 14 late in the third quarter when Fred VanVleet decided he’d had enough and started doing All-Star things.

The Raptors point guard got it going with a much-needed jumper as the Jazz were beginning to open up some room after Toronto had pulled within seven at one point. Then VanVleet hit a three. Then he bulled his way to the rim and got fouled.

And then he really started rolling.

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By the time the horn sounded on the quarter, VanVleet had scored 17-straight points and – after assisting on Chris Boucher lay-up – finished things up with a triple from the claw logo a few feet over centre for 20 points in 4:17. In all it was a 24-point third quarter on 8-of-8 shooting, including a trio of threes while going 5-of-5 from the free-throw line.

The Raptors needed all of it in an otherwise shaky 122-108 win over the Jazz. OG Anunoby did add 22 points and Boucher was sharp of the bench with 13 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes.

But VanVleet was special. It was a shame there weren’t 19,800 there to soak it all in and ride the wave.

Undrafted six-foot point guards? They’re not supposed to be able to do that. But VanVleet keeps doing it.

“That was an incredible one, all the way through the [third] quarter, all the way leading up to that race-up three at the end. You couldn’t believe that went in as well,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who made a point of noting that VanVleet had seven deflections in the quarter too, a key measure of defensive effort.

“It was a spirited effort by him to lead us with the ball in his hands and defensively at the same time. [But] it’s hard to score like that, for sure, especially to string ‘em up like that so, for sure, the offensive part was really special.”

The victory stretched the Raptors’ winning streak to a season-high tying five games, with the struggling New Orleans Pelicans scheduled for Sunday.

Hopefully the Raptors won’t need VanVleet to go supernova to push their streak to six.

But then again, VanVleet has been pretty reliable in that regard. He continued what has been a remarkable push to make his first All-Star game by scoring a season-high 37 points, while adding 10 rebounds and 10 assists for his first career triple-double after some close calls of late.

Over his last six games he’s averaging 31 points, 7.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds while making 5.4 threes a game on 43 per cent shooting. It’s hard to imagine him or almost anyone else playing better.

“You just gotta learn when to apply it,” said VanVleet. “I’mma be honest, I always think I’m the best player in the gym and sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes you show it and sometimes you don’t. That’s just the way I approach the game and you have to enforce that will and enforce your will on the game. I was more proud of the defensive plays I made in the third to give us that spark and the offence, that is what it is, it’ll come and go. I was just able to find my rhythm, my teammates set good screens and found me in good spots.”

The win improved the Raptors’ record to 19-17 as the Jazz fell to 28-11. After struggling to keep a spot in the play-in tournament in view, Toronto is suddenly within hailing distance (3.5 games) of home-court advantage and a top-four seed in the tightly-packed Eastern Conference.

Hopefully there will fans at Scotiabank Arena by then, but the Raptors were lucky the building was empty due to COVID restrictions Friday.

The crowd soundtrack that plays in the vacant arena doesn’t include booing. The paying customers may not have been so kind given the way Toronto started the game.

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The first quarter was miserable, an example of what can happen when a team comes to work and figures half their job is already half done.

The Jazz were missing their top six scorers – though only two due to COVID protocols – and eight of their top nine. The Raptors were coasting in at full strength, save for Yuta Watanabe, and were boasting both a four-game winning streak and three games having their same preferred starters – the only three times that’s happened this year.

Toronto knows how this script is supposed to go. On Boxing Day in Cleveland, the Raptors – who had 10 players in COVID protocols, including nine of their top-10 scorers – showed up and dutifully lost by 45 points.

This was no longer the Raptors’ problem. Quite the opposite.

Nurse tried to sound a warning before the game about the dangers of taking it easy against an undermanned team:

“I know they are missing a lot of their key guys, or most of them,” he said. “But there’s still a very good group of guys coming out to play, guys that hard to guard and hard to defend [with] size. Just off the top, [Jordan] Clarkson, [Rudy] Gay and [Hassan] Whiteside are problems. We have to figure out how to cover those guys. “

But Nurse’s words of warning probably lost a bit of weight when the Jazz held out Clarkson (back) and Gay (heel) at the last minute.

This was an easy win on a platter. Six of the Jazz regulars that didn’t dress played their regular minutes in Utah’s win in Denver on Wednesday.

Could Utah have simply not wanted to risk travelling them across the border and going through an extra layer of COVID screening and risk getting stuck in Toronto for the better part of a week?

Even if the Jazz were being cautious, given they are scheduled to play on the second night of a back-to-back in Indiana on Saturday, it all seemed a bit strange.

And that’s before the game started.

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The Jazz no-show was supposed to be the universe paying the Raptors back.

Well, the first quarter was the universe laughing at them for thinking that’s how things work.

Consider how the last 30 seconds of the opening quarter went for the home side, who were 13-point favourites before the Jazz scratched Clarkson and Gay shortly before tip:

The Raptors gave up a lob to Whiteside – the lone Jazz rotation regular – committed two turnovers and then watched idly as Malik Fitts cruised into a wide-open three from just over half with 0.5 left on the clock. Of course, it went down, and the Raptors were somehow trailing 40-25, while allowing Utah to shoot 53.8 per cent from the floor and 7-of-13 from three, while Toronto could only manage 36 per cent and 2-of-11.

Things normalized somewhat in the second quarter. The Raptors began guarding with a little bit more vigour, but they still couldn’t shoot. The ball moved, the shots were reasonable but the vibe was not conducive to made baskets, or something.

The Jazz sat down in a zone, let Whiteside clog the paint and challenged Toronto to make one from deep. In the end, they made three in 15 tries and trailed 62-59 at half.

It was time for a frank exchange of views.

“[There was] no panic but sometimes you gotta call a spade a spade and we definitely did that with each other,” said VanVleet. “Again, we responded, that’s where your chemistry wins out over time and we’ve been in these situations before so happy to come out with the win, nothing else really matters, I don’t care who’s coming to play, we gotta go out there and lace ‘em up and try to get it done.”

The third quarter wasn’t all that much more promising early on, but VanVleet decided he wasn’t having it, simple as that. He went off on his run, making some Raptors history along the way.

Had he ever had a scoring binge like that before? “Not at his level,” he said. “Maybe in Church League.”

These days VanVleet is making it look almost that easy.

It’s what great players do, and VanVleet is proving he just might be that.

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