Published On: Tue, Mar 13th, 2018

VanVleet’s fingerprints all over Raptors’ 9th straight win

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – It’s always fun to speculate about what the Toronto Raptors might do in the post-season with their unconventional large rotation, which commonly runs 10 and sometimes 11 deep.

Shorten it? Let it ride?

We’ll see, I guess. But count on Fred VanVleet having his fingerprints all over it, no matter the configuration. Starting, finishing, playing extended minutes? All are on the table for the increasingly productive and instrumental implement in Raptors head coach Dwane Casey’s toolbox.



VanVleet had his fingerprints all over Toronto’s 116-102 win. It was much more than his 15 points and four assists in 27 minutes, it was little plays like draping himself all over a previously wide-open D’Angelo Russell as the Nets guard – who had made seven threes on the night – set up for a shot in transition. VanVleet closed him down. The play-by-play shows the Raptors stop was sandwiched around a DeMar DeRozan three and then a layup in transition that put Toronto up 10, salting away an otherwise very close game, but VanVleet was making little plays all game long that made just as big a difference.

He had help. In particular C.J. Miles exploding for all 12 points of his points in the space of three minutes in the fourth quarter as part of a 14-6 run that finally gave Toronto some breathing room. That was much-needed in what was another tough game for the Raptors at the Barclays Center, having been stretched to overtime here in their last visit.

The win was the Raptors’ ninth straight, extending their season-high winning streak as they head to Indiana with a chance to push it to double figures on Thursday against the Pacers. Notably, Toronto won its 50th game for just the third time in franchise history and the third straight year, but the club has never done it with 15 games to play. Its lead atop the Eastern Conference is now four games over the Boston Celtics as Toronto has won 15 of its past 16.

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The Raptors were led by Jonas Valanciunas, who handled himself well against a series of smaller Nets lineups, punishing them at the rim with 26 points and 14 rebounds – four on the offensive glass. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were otherwise subdued, finishing with 15 and 11, respectively as the Raptors shot 48 per cent from the floor and made 11-of-31 threes while getting 50 points from the bench.

The Nets were held to 12-of-43 from the field and 3-of-14 from three in the second half after converting 23-of-43 and 12-of-22 in the first half.

In the third quarter, the game was slipping away from the starters for third time when Casey went to VanVleet earlier than normal, bringing him in for an ineffective Norman Powell barely four minutes into the second half. The Nets had pushed their 10-point halftime lead to 15 and the visitors needed a fresh look.

VanVleet picked the starters up first with his defence, sticking to the ball like glue, slipping around screens as if he was greased. On offence he knocked down a pair of key threes and assisted on a Valanciunas hoop that tied the game 74-74 in the space of three minutes as the Raptors were able to take an 87-85 lead into the fourth quarter.

Toronto Raptors

With the Toronto starters ineffective for much of the night, VanVleet provided a big effort off the bench. (Kathy Willens/AP)

It’s little wonder that before the game Casey was espousing how much he’s enjoyed this season – a rare expression of basketball as pleasure from a coach who sees trouble around every corner.

Every time he needs them they’re there, it seems, and VanVleet is there earlier than most.

“This is a lot of fun. This is a fun team to coach,” Casey said. “The second unit is fun, it’s almost like coaching a college team; they are a lot of fun.”

Toronto needed VanVleet and the bench for everything they had. The Raptors played a very impressive first quarter in that they shot 58.3 per cent from the floor but they didn’t account for Russell. The No. 2 pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2015 draft quickly fell out of favour in LA but has shown flashes with the Nets, who having traded away three years of first-round picks in the infamous Celtics heist of 2014, are more than happy to take a flyer on some young talent. Russell is just working his way back to form after missing 32 games after knee surgery, but he had 26 points in his last outing against Philadelphia and thus drew Casey’s attention.

“He’s a creator. He’s a dynamic creator who can take you off the dribble,” said Casey before the game. “… He can create his own shot. He can get to his own shot. Being left-handed he’s crafty with the ball so at any given time he can create his own shot and that is the most difficult thing about him. There are not a lot of guys in the league who can go one-on-one and you feel good about it and he can do that.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t get the Raptors’ starters attention and by the time they clued in Russell had scored 24 points on seven shots – all threes – without a miss. The only shot that didn’t go in was a three that he was fouled on and he made all his free throws. The last opponent to score that many points against the Raptors in a quarter was LeBron James 12 years ago.

By the time the quarter was over Brooklyn led 40-32, Russell’s explosion negating the Raptors’ otherwise solid offensive output.

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In the second quarter Russell got a very up-close-and-personal introduction to VanVleet as the Raptors reserve stuck to the Nets sharpshooter like deodorant.

Just like that the bench had fixed the starters’ mess, tying the score at 47-47 on a layup by VanVleet midway through the second quarter. The starters began filtering back in, only to let go of the rope again as Brooklyn went off on a 16-4 run with five quick points from former Raptor DeMarre Carroll as the Nets took a 67-57 lead into the half, aided by 12-of-22 three-point shooting.

The Nets are second in the NBA in three-point attempts, averaging 35.1 a game, but only 27th in shooting percentage from deep. But catch them on the wrong night and it could be trouble.

“You always have to look at teams like that. Their philosophy is like a lot of teams right now. It’s all about the analytical three. They take very few in-between shots,” said Casey. “At some point they are going to start going in. We just hope it’s not tonight. It starts with their penetration. They are an attacking team, a penetrating team off the dribble. If you don’t contain the ball it’s going to create a lot of problems and suck you in from their three-point position. We have to make sure we do a good job on the ball and that will negate some of those kick-out opportunities.

For one half, the Raptors – and their starters in particular – didn’t do that or anything else very well.

But VanVleet and the bench? They answered the call again. Oh, and Russell? Under VanVleet’s watchful eye he didn’t score another field goal with him in the game, and very much in his shirt.

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VanVleet’s fingerprints all over Raptors’ 9th straight win