PORTLAND – It’s been a long-and-winding season for Fred VanVleet – and by extension the Toronto Raptors — and there’s still plenty of basketball to play.
Doesn’t mean it will be easy though.
“I get to go from Steph to Dame,” he said the other day as the Raptors were in the midst of navigating a back-to-back against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors on Friday, and Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night — a Hall-of-Fame point guard gauntlet. “Welcome to my life in the NBA. I got my work cut out for me.”
Give the Raptors – and VanVleet credit: they’re putting in the work.
It was their effort more than anything that allowed them to pull out a gritty 123-105 win on the road in Portland in front of a crowd – it should be noted – that was sprinkled liberally with Canadian contest, as Canada’s west-coast Raptors fan base made the drive south in numbers.
The win improved the Raptors’ record to 2-1 on their seven-game road trip and improved Toronto’s record to 23-28 while the Blazers fell to 23-26. The Raptors remain in 12th place, a game out of 10th place and the final play-in spot.
Toronto was led by Precious Achiuwa who had a season-high 27 points and 13 rebounds starting in place of O.G. Anunoby (wrist). Next was Pascal Siakam with 24 points while Scottie Barnes had 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Gary Trent Jr. added 19 points as all five Raptors starters hit double figures.
The Trail Blazers were led by Damian Lillard who had 30 points, but he had to work for them, and VanVleet was part of that effort.
“Make him pass. Try to make him pass as best you can,” said VanVleet. “… for me, I’m the first point of attack, sending him right to the help, trying to chase him down and make a play.”
The Raptors – and VanVleet – made just enough of them.
VanVleet arrived in Portland after a 29-point and 11-assist effort against the Warriors Friday and averaging 28.3 points and 7.2 assists over his previous six games while shooting 44.7 per cent from three and 48.7 per cent overall. It’s the peak of a longer trend where VanVleet has been averaging 21.7 points and 6.4 assists on shooting splits more consistent with his career averages than his poor shooting splits (36 per cent from the floor and 32.6 per cent from three) over the first two months of the season.
It was those struggles – on top of a poor finish to last year, his first as an all-star – that has made VanVleet the centre of the conversations around the Raptors that are negative for almost for the first time in his career.
He seems to be bouncing back though. He didn’t have an explosive game offensively against Portland – his final line of 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting would attest to that. But VanVleet found a way to affect winning. He led Toronto with nine assists and has four steals and six rebounds – three of them on the offensive end. He competed and delivered some smart plays at crucial moments. He helped hold Lillard mostly in check, 30 points being the Portland star’s season average.
Early in the fourth quarter with the Blazers surging, VanVleet put together this sequence: an assist to Chris Boucher on an alley-oop; a jumper to answer a deep Lillard three; an assist to Pascal Siakam on a lay-up and a drive to the rim where VanVleet – the smallest player on the floor – grabbed his own offensive rebound to score and push the lead to 10 after the Blazers had pulled within four. The Blazers were so mad that head coach Chauncy Billups got T’d up and VanVleet made that shot too. He later found Siakam for a three and the Raptors’ lead was back to 18 thanks to 14-0 run that VanVleet had his fingerprints all over.
“That’s some all-star type stuff,” said Achiuwa of his point guard. “He came in, took over the game. Put everyone where they needed to be and calmed us down and got us going again.”
It’s been a while since VanVleet has been playing at the level that earned him his first all-star nod last season. But lately, the signs are there.
“Obviously leading up, the first half of last season up until this point, that was his [best basketball], for sure,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse about his point guard. “These last group of games he’s been as good as that, for sure. He’s getting to the rim. He’s shooting the ball. He’s making some open ones. He’s creating some threes. He’s hitting some step backs. He’s got a little bit of mid-range going. Looks athletically really good out there, moving side to side and guarding people. He’s playing really well right now.”
VanVleet says it’s been coming for a while, it’s just taken time for the number to catch up to how he’s been feeling.
“Getting my legs under me took a little longer than I would have liked it too, said VanVleet. “I made a lot of drastic changes to my body and to my approach to my preparation and just the way that I’m approaching the season. It took a little longer for me to find it.
“I feel good where I’m at and I just have to find ways to maintain that on a nightly basis. When I’m fresh and I got that pop, I feel like I can compete against anybody in the league and it’s my job to continue to find ways stay ready and stay fresh for the season.”
VanVleet’s found himself in the news for other reasons too. He can be a free agent this summer and has found himself figuring prominently in trade speculation. Then earlier this month came reports (that VanVleet denied) that he’d turned down a $114 million contract extension and then last week news that he’s split with his long-time agent, Brian Jungreis.
Was it a sign that more changes are coming? VanVleet told me otherwise.
“It was a long time in the making,” he said of his decision to change agents, adding that reports that he’s going to join Klutch Sports Group, the agency representing Gary Trent Jr. and Anunoby – two other Raptors whose names have been prominent in trade rumours – were premature. “Maybe the paperwork getting filed around the time when my name is in a lot of trade rumours, it’s going to make some noise, but there’s really nothing to it.
“It’s just time for me to switch agents for the second half of my career,” he added. “It didn’t work out with the previous thing going on. I’m looking forward to a long, prosperous career, so I wouldn’t read too much into it.”
How the Raptors perform on the floor will likely have a lot to do with the decisions management makes between now and the trade deadline on Feb. 9th.
But VanVleet’s got company in picking up his game. The Raptors have been showing signs for weeks that their struggles through the first half of the season were beginning to fade. It’s coincided with improved performances from VanVleet, some steady play from Trent Jr. and Achiuwa rounding into form – or actually playing some of the best basketball of his career – after getting into game shape following a 24-game absence due an ankle injury.
Achiuwa’s leap has been perfectly timed with Anunoby looking like he’s going to miss some time with a sprained left wrist suffered against the Warriors on Friday. Toronto is still waiting to get the result of an MRI test to determine the extent of the injury, but Achiuwa filled the minutes without a problem, playing centre while Barnes and Siakam manned the wings.
Achiuwa was the story of the Raptors’ first half, if not the game. He had 16 points and 10 rebounds in 16 minutes – the 10th time he’s scored in double-figures in his past 11 games — while making the start for Anunoby. He looks calm and comfortable, and his athleticism has always been elite. It’s coming together for him. He had eight and five in the first quarter as the Raptors sprinted out to a 37-14 lead.
“I tell you what, he was in the right place at the right time a lot tonight,” said Nurse. “And that’s a good sign that he’s finding his relocation or his location and making himself available [for passes].
That quick start also came on the shoulders of Trent Jr., who scored 13 first-quarter points against the team that traded him to Toronto at the deadline in 2020-21.
The Raptors held the Blazers to 6-of-22 shooting and the Blazers – the NBA’s fifth-rated offense – were 0-of-5 from three.
The Blazers cut the Raptors lead to 12 with four minutes left in the half, but Toronto responded, with Achiuwa right in the middle of a 12-5 surge as he cashed in on a pair of three-point plays, one sparked by a steal by VanVleet and another finishing a play he started with his own steal as the Raptors lead 63-44 at half.
But the Blazers kept coming, and the Raptors’ legs began to show the effects of their third road game in four nights, as well as playing on the second night of a back-to-back against the Blazers team that was watching while Toronto was trying to keep up with the Warriors in San Francisco Friday. Portland shot 15-of-18 in the third quarter. Toronto simply couldn’t get stops. When Anfernee Simons split the defense on consecutive drives to finish the third Portland had cut Toronto’s lead to 88-83 by the time the fourth quarter started.
VanVleet hadn’t hit a field goal in the first half – the Blazers were giving him added attention and trying to take the ball out of his hands — but hit two threes in third, showing signs his offense might be coming.
It’s been an on-going struggle.
“It’s just different,” VanVleet said of his season-long effort to try and regain his flow. “So you tweak and you try to subtract and add and maybe I find a new routine here or there so I was adding a lot without taking away some of the stuff I used to do and then you go through a couple of games where you don’t make threes and you can probably attribute that to some [tired] legs.
“But I feel like I’ve been playing great basketball all season, the three’s just not falling, and when the threes not falling and you look at those percentages and they’re pretty nasty and when the threes come back, it’s going to look [better],” he said. “So I know what I’m capable of as a player, I just go to find ways to win. That’s all I’m focussed on. I know what I can do individually.
“I would rather come out of these things with wins.”
On Saturday night in Portland, he and the Raptors got just that.