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Game 5 is time for the Raptors to dominate (even without Fred VanVleet)

Toronto knew a shelved VanVleet would suck. But nobody could’ve predicted this: another first round series hanging in the balance

NBA: Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

If these last few games haven’t convinced award voters that the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet deserves the Sixth Man of the Year award, I’m not sure what else could.

Since losing him in the final game of the regular season, Toronto has been unable to find an adequate replacement for VanVleet’s spot in the rotation. Everyone knew the injury was going to hurt — both player and team — but nobody could’ve predicted this. At this point, his near-mythic stature might even steal some MVP votes.

Lineup Struggles Across the Board

The Raptors bench has been a shadow of its regular season self since losing its primary floor general to a wounded wing. Among other things, they simply haven’t been unable to impose their collective will on opposing second units — something they did with overwhelming regularity in the season’s first 82 games.

The stall in bench productivity has led to coach Dwane Casey searching for a viable solution until VanVleet is deemed 100 percent. In his absence, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have taken turns playing with the second unit. Delon Wright has also seen a spike in his minutes — for the season, VanVleet averaged 20 minutes per night, so there’s plenty to go around.

The results so far have been mixed, albeit with far more bad than good.

The lineup of Lowry alongside the primary bench foursome (Delon Wright/C.J. Miles/Jakob Poeltl/Pascal Siakam) has played to a net rating of +8, per 100 possessions. Sounding like a hard to please high school teacher, I’ll deem that passable. But when you swap out Lowry, replacing him with DeRozan, suddenly the lineup plummets to -53(!!!). (Both findings are per pbpstats.com.)

VanVleet’s presence affords Toronto more flexibility on offense by allowing DeMar and Kyle to play more off the ball. As a result, teams have a tougher time keying on them.

But to this point neither of Toronto’s stars have been able to fill VanVleet’s shoes and steer the second unit. It’s possible they are battling fatigue from the added minutes, or maybe we are seeing proof of something else — something truly perplexing in that even the Raptors’ best and most decorated players are unable to replicate the on-court magic of the man I’ve taken to calling “Simple Fred”.

Late Game Struggles (And Will Somebody Please Just Shoot Already)

If there’s one aspect of Game 4 that stood out above all else, it had to be Toronto’s habitual passing up of open shots, specifically in the fourth quarter. Said Delon Wright: “Yeah, two for sure. It could be more, but I had two wide-open threes that I passed up that I should have took. And I already knew that I shoulda took‘em when I didn’t.”

This Raptors season has been about egalitarianism on offense, right? Don’t think, just shoot! These are coach Casey’s words, not mine:

“I don’t care if you miss six or seven of them, if they’re in the shot spectrum, they’re your shots, you’ve got to shoot those shots.”
Dwane Casey, after Game 4 loss to Washington (and probably countless other times)

Players passing up open looks suggests a dip in confidence. Sure there are other factors at play but almost certainly, a lack of self-belief plays a part. The waning confidence bug is found more in young players this time of year, as opposed to veterans — C.J. Miles has not been shy to let it loose despite struggling after starting the series off with a hot shooting stroke. Meanwhile, younger players , Wright and Siakam come to mind here, appear to be pressing.

VanVleet is many things — gun shy is not one of them. He was second on the team in fourth quarter field goal attempts in the regular season, trailing only DeMar DeRozan. And we all remember this shot:

With mere seconds left, he had to shoot, I get that.

However, at the time VanVleet was 1-for-9, while DeRozan had poured in 42 points — he was virtually unstoppable that evening. And yet, Toronto’s de facto closer elected to dish it to a teammate shooting 11 percent for the evening.

All season long, VanVleet has earned the trust of all his teammates, especially Lowry and DeRozan. Both have, at every given opportunity, raved about his game, his poise, and his calm within the storm demeanour.

The Fourth Quarter Struggle is Real

Statistic Reg Season (Rank) Playoffs* (Rank)
Statistic Reg Season (Rank) Playoffs* (Rank)
Points 26.2 (9) 24.3 (13)
Off Rtg 108.1 (12) 102.8 (12)
Def Rtg 99.8 (1) 99.3 (3)
Net Rtg 8.3 (1) 3.5 (7)
TS% 56.4 (10) 53.1 (14)
Ast 5.3 (11) 4 (14)
Ast% 55.4 (19) 48.5 (11)
* Thru 4 games
Toronto’s fourth quarter results have dipped without VanVleet in the lineup.

There is a simplicity to VanVleet’s game that rubs off on his teammates. He rarely plays beyond his means. Within the Raptors youth core, Fred is wired most appropriately for the rigours of playoff basketball — in the head that is. His shoulder is most certainly a different story.

Meanwhile, Casey is adamant that the problems facing his team after a sloppy trip to Washington are for the most part self-inflicted. “No disrespect to Washington — it’s not like they’re doing something, trapping or doing something that’s confusing us. We’re confusing ourselves.”

Toronto is overthinking. They’re overpassing, forever trying to create for one another while turning down wide open shots in the process. It’s an admirable problem to have, though it does make a team prone to turnovers when they insist on passing even when open. And it’s worth noting that Toronto presently sits last amongst playoff teams in turnovers per game.

VanVleet’s Game 5 status is still to be decided though I’d be surprised if he dresses. His official status is now questionable, and he went through practice with the team. Nonetheless, while Toronto waits for their quiet but confident sixth man to return they could do themselves a favour by remembering what he’s shown not only them, but the entire league this season:

Sometimes in this crazy game, and in life, you just gotta “Bet on Yourself.”