Entering the NBA Playoffs, Fred VanVleet would not have popped into your mind as a player to turn into a postseason hero. For the season, the Toronto Raptors backup point guard averaged only 11 points per game, on 41 percent shooting from the field.
But suddenly, when premier performance was required in big games, VanVleet stepped up. Shots that were hitting the rim were going in from beyond the arc. Off the bench, VanVleet is the catalyst of a supporting cast that has played a pivotal role in getting the Raptors to the franchise’s first NBA Finals.
Even in defeat against the Golden State Warriors in Game 2, VanVleet remains positive. He knows what his team must do in order to steal a game in Oakland.
“You can’t start slow against this team,” said VanVleet after the Raptors 109-104 defeat in Game 2. “We got to be better to start the third and we know that,
and that’s something that we’ll focus on and look at the tape and see how we can be better next game.”
VanVleet Credits Birth of Son for Offensive Resurgence
Fred VanVleet’s personal motto is “Bet on Yourself.” This phrase inspires the point guard whenever he steps out on the court. It got him through college playing for the Wichita State Shockers. And it enabled perseverance when the 25-year-old was undrafted in 2016.
Entering this year’s NBA Playoffs, VanVleet was struggling. In the Philadelphia 76ers series, VanVleet and the entire secondary cast of players could not provide the consistent scoring to support Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. Averaging only seven points per game in the postseason, something needed to change.
After the Raptors tenacious Game 3 double-overtime victory against the Milwaukee Bucks, Fred heard the news that his long-time girlfriend, Shontai Neal, was giving birth to their son Fred Jr. Rushing back to Illinois, the Raptors backup point guard was able to be with Shontai, cradling baby Fred Jr. in his arms. He was joyous. Overwhelmed with happiness. And ready to get back to playing great basketball.
In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, VanVleet had a career playoff-high 21 points as the Raptors stole the game on the road in Milwaukee. The finals-clinching Game 6 saw the point guard generate 14 points off the bench. It’s a whole new Fred VanVleet on the court. Gone is the tentative point guard who couldn’t hit shots. The new Fred is setting up the offense, draining shots and playing aggressive defense. Credit the birth of his son for providing this inspiration.
“I’m getting better looks, more open looks, and as you make them, your teammates start to look for you more and more and the game kind of opens up all at once,” stated VanVleet.
VanVleet Critical for Raptors Defending the Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors have won three of the past four championships. Steph Curry, one of the all-time premier shooters, has been integral in leading the charge from beyond the arc. But one player has been able to effectively stymie Steph. Fred VanVleet.
In the Raptors 118-109 Game 1 victory, VanVleet held Steph to just one field goal when he was defending him. This went on for 33 possessions. VanVleet has displayed the capacity to navigate screens effectively while chasing down Curry whenever he doesn’t have the ball.
“You just got to try to be as physical as you can, slow him down and keep the contest,” says VanVleet on how to defend Curry. “A guy like that, who is a really good shooter against contest, you can’t really give him free looks and let him feel free and easy.”
As the series shifts to the Bay Area, the Raptors have a plethora of areas to work on. Hitting open shots is one. Preventing the open space for ball movement is another. But the scrappy Fred VanVleet is used to performing on the big stage. When he is on the floor for the Raptors, the team is a +76, compared to +39 overall. If the team needs an injection of energy and offense, Fred VanVleet is the player to call. And he will need to deliver if the Raptors have any hope of winning the NBA Championship.
“I’m not too worried about Freddie,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Freddie’s an ice water-in-his-veins-type-of-guy. He took a mid-major school to the Final Four. He took a mid-major school to 35-0.”
Maybe it’s a sign that Fred should have more kids. So his basketball play can be stellar on a consistent basis.