WASHINGTON — Here is what the stat line of Raptors reserve point guard Fred VanVleet, out of the lineup since playing just three minutes in Game 2 due to a shoulder injury, read in the Raptors’ first round series-clinching victory on Friday: 18:46 playing time, five points, four rebounds, four assists, 2-for-7 on field goals with a three-pointer. Modest.
Here is the word best to describe his impact on the entire game – for both teams – reading in between those lines: Decisive.
The smallest player on the court for a large portion of the game, the six-foot VanVleet was the lynchpin to the Raptors’ reserves thoroughly dominating the Washington Wizards starters in the final 12 minutes on their way to a 102-92 victory in Game 6 at Capital One Arena to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals. All regular season long, Toronto’s second unit was unquestionably the league’s best, posting a net efficiency rating (8.3) that was almost two points better than the runner-up in the category (Houston, 6.8). In this series, Toronto’s bench had its good moments, almost exclusively in the games at Air Canada Centre, but something was amiss.
An edge was noticeably absent with a few of the subs stepping on the floor, especially in Washington. The swagger the reserves usually came in with was not at full force.
As it turned out, all of that came back with the return of VanVleet, the person Raptors head coach Dwane Casey calls the “engine” and the person whose impact on the game was felt like a locomotive at full speed.
“Just added Freddy [VanVleet] to the group. That is the difference,” said Casey in the postgame press conference. “We tried not to make a big deal out of it while he was out, keep the other guys motivated but he was the difference. I thought that little group has a playing personality that he does make a difference with that group.”
Toronto needed that personality from its bench to come to the fore after it went down 30-20 at the end of the first quarter, a Game 7 on Sunday one step closer to coming to fruition. In stepped VanVleet, admittedly still playing at less than 100 percent, and, in his eight minutes on the floor in the second quarter, produced three rebounds and three assists. Within the first 3:44 of the quarter, he assisted on three Raptors baskets, grabbed two defensive rebounds and hit a pull-up jumper from the top of the key. A 10-point deficit to start the quarter was almost erased in the first five minutes as All-Star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan sat on the bench.
Having Toronto’s dynamic duo, as well as other starters, parked on the bench while the reserves more than pulled their own weight was a regular occurrence this season and, with VanVleet back tonight, everything was set up for the substitutes to play a starring role once more.
“All year we have been a group. It’s been a group effort all year, so that wasn’t going to change,” said VanVleet. “Anytime you take one of our guys out, it’s been a little tough out there. So you know, coming back in and giving them full strength as a unit and as a group, obviously my role is to make guys jobs easier, to make their life a little easier out there.”
As good as the start of the second quarter was for Toronto’s reserves, the fourth quarter might have somehow been the best quarter its bench has played all season, given the circumstances. Down 78-73 to begin the quarter, the Raptors outscored Washington 29-14 to seal the series win, with the bench combining to score more points (17) than the Wizards in the frame. Forward Pascal Siakam dominated the paint on both ends with six points and six rebounds (three offensive) as he and guard Delon Wright played all 12 minutes in the fourth. VanVleet played 8:29 in the fourth, and each of the five bench players who played – including C.J. Miles and Jakob Poeltl – scored in the quarter.
“[VanVleet] just keeps us all calm out there, even when things are not going right and everything,” said the 6-foot-9 Siakim, who also was the main defender on John Wall in the fourth quarter, forcing Wall to miss all four of his shots in the frame. “He just controls the tempo. We just have a cool factor when he’s there. We are calm, no matter what we can figure it out. When Fred is out there, we feel complete, I guess, because we have been playing like that the whole season.”
Of all of the players on the bench that felt VanVleet’s loss the most, it was probably Siakam who was most affected, and he made sure to keep tabs on the second-year point guard as he was making his way back to the lineup.
“Every day I would always ask him, ‘When are you coming back?,'” Siakam said. “He can tell you that.”
Lowry and DeRozan, as you would expect, did still have an impact on the game, with Lowry scoring eight fourth-quarter points. DeRozan did most of his damage (16 points) in the first half, but the two playing only 9:46 out of a possible 24 minutes combined in the fourth quarter was a welcomed sight to the Raptors, as they will need all the rest they can get in their quest to make their first-ever NBA Finals appearance.
“There’s been countless games where our starters didn’t even see the fourth quarter because of our bench,” said DeRozan. “Having Freddy back, it was expected. What those guys are capable of – they’re capable of going out there and playing against starters on the other team and competing at a high level.”
Toronto put the finishing touches on the Wizards’ season as their two star backcourt players, Wall and Bradley Beal, had to pick up the slack even more with the loss of the team’s third-leading scorer, Otto Porter Jr., who missed the game due to a surgical procedure to address a leg bruise. Wall played all but 27 seconds of the fourth quarter and Beal played 10:25 in the frame, but the guards combined to go 2-for-9 from the field as the heavy minutes logged took its toll – especially with the fresh legs of the Raptors attacking them on both ends of the court.
“The ball is going to go through our hands at the end of the day. Win, lose, it’s going to be on us,” said Beal, who ended the game with a game-high 32 points. “We were just being aggressive and wanted to give ourselves the best opportunity to put ourselves in a position to be able to win. We made some shots, made some plays, but it still wasn’t enough at the end.”
Starting the season as one of the chief threats to the Cleveland Cavaliers at the top of the Eastern Conference, the Wizards’ season was ravaged all season by injuries and inconsistency, and, when it seemed as if things were starting to come together at the right time, Porter Jr.’s injury status right before the start of tonight’s game was one of the final nails driven into Washington for the 2017-18 season.
“We started the season not where we wanted to be,” said Wizards head coach Scott Brooks. “Markieff [Morris] was out with his hernia surgery and missed a handful of games. John [Wall] missed half the season. But we fought and we made the playoffs. We made the eighth seed. Sometimes you just squeak in, and you got to play the best, hottest team in basketball like Toronto was. And then Otto’s injury happened at the wrong time also. But give [Toronto] credit. I don’t know if any of that would have changed.”