2019 NBA Finals: Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors

VanVleet embodies Toronto's toughness, tenacity

It's no coincidence the Raptors have jelled just as their valuable reserve has rediscovered his game

TORONTO – Fred VanVleet left some of his blood on the court at Oracle Arena on Friday and, no, that’s not some hokey metaphor for the Toronto guard’s intensity and passion in the Raptors’ 105-92 Game 4 Finals victory at Golden State.

VanVleet literally dripped blood under one of the baskets after taking an errant elbow from the Warriors’ Shaun Livington, who opened up a gash around VanVleet’s right eye. The blow sent the Raptors’ reserve guard crashing to the floor and left him with a chipped tooth and an early exit from the game that left Toronto up 3-1 in these NBA Finals.

It would hurt a lot more if we had lost,” VanVleet told reporters Sunday at Scotiabank Arena.

A number of Raptors have stepped up, game-to-game, in crafting the victories that have them on the brink of the first NBA championship in the franchise’s 24-year history. None embodies their toughness more than VanVleet, a feisty, sturdy 6-foot guard who most often can be found hoisting high-arcing shots from the Raptors’ perimeter.

At the other end, though, VanVleet routinely goes where other undersized guards fear to tread, sticking his beak into the paint where his face and head are at just about the most vulnerable height.

“You’re not going to get knocked around like that if you don’t stick your nose in there sometimes,” VanVleet said. “It happens, it’s basketball. If you haven’t gotten your eye cut up or get hit in the mouth a couple times playing basketball, then you’re playing it the wrong way.”

While VanVleet’s full name – Fredderick Edmund VanVleet – might make him sound like a banker or venture capitalist, not one drop of that blood spilled in Oakland was blue.

He has beginnings as humble as anyone in The Finals: Raised in a rough part of Rockford, Illinois, VanVleet spent four years at Wichita State without fanfare (10.2 ppg, 4.5 apg), then went undrafted in 2016. He signed with Toronto and spent his rookie season on a yo-yo to/from the G League before making a little playoff noise in a cameo against Milwaukee and Cleveland.

In 2017-18, VanVleet was former coach Dwane Casey’s full-service backup, averaging 20 minutes and 8.6 points off the bench behind Kyle Lowry while hitting 41.4 percent of his 3-pointers. This season, Nick Nurse, Casey’s replacement, started VanVleet 28 times and bumped his minutes to 27.5.

So far this postseason, the more VanVleet has played, the more has gone well for Toronto. In the Raptors’ first 14 playoff games against Orlando, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, VanVleet averaged 19.3 minutes, 4.1 points and 2.4 rebounds while making only 21.2 percent of his 3-pointers. The team’s record: 8-6.

Starting with Game 3 against Milwaukee, Toronto has gone 8-1 with VanVleet averaging 32.6 minutes, 12.8 points and 3.4 assists. He has shot 47.9 percent from the arc.

One angle on VanVleet’s resurgence – that he somehow channeled the birth of his son Fred Jr. during the Bucks series into on-court improvement – got shot down by daddy almost immediately.

I wish I could go back in time and not tell anyone that I had a kid,” he told The Athletic. “So that I could get all the glory for turning around my performance.”

Nurse frankly doesn’t care. He wasn’t even fully aware of the turnaround, or at least the statistics of it.

“More than anything, we always use the term ‘Just keep playing,’ right?” the Raptors coach said before Game 4. “I think that’s what he did. I think he started playing good after a [1-for-11] game, and I remember I didn’t even know he was 1-for-11]. That was the game Kyle fouled out with six to go that went to double overtime [Game 3 in the East finals], and I thought he played so great, I was in there singing his praises in the press conference.

“And someone said, ‘You know, he was 1-11,’ and I said ‘No, I didn’t know.’ Because he was running hard and making plays. And I think just keep playing. Some nights the ball is going in, some nights it isn’t. But just impact the game any way you can, not just with your shooting or your scoring.”

Nurse has sought VanVleet’s pace and assertiveness the past two games against Golden State, starting him alongside Kyle Lowry as a second point guard after halftime of Games 3 and 4. The results could not have been better.

VanVleet doesn’t think it’s a mere coincidence that he’s one of three players from his home state in these Finals. Warriors veterans Andre Iguodala (Springfield) and Shaun Livingston (Peoria) also were born and raised in Illinois.

“It speaks to the basketball pedigree of Illinois and the areas outside Chicago that don’t get as much recognition, but still produce a high level of talent,” VanVleet said.

Only one of them, however, will take the court in Game 5 with a new mouthpiece and stitches, having passed concussion protocol over the weekend, while blinking through blurred vision out of a randomly watering right eye. VanVleet has become an indispensable member of Toronto’s Finals rotation.

“I know how important I am to this team, to this franchise, and I know what I bring to the table,” he said Sunday. “That’s never in question, never in doubt. [I] just try to focus on maximizing my potential each night and giving my team the best chance to win. We got to go out there and do it again.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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