It’s a question we all asked ourselves after five games, win or lose: how important is Fred VanVleet to the Raptors’ success? As we witnessed tonight, the answer might not come down to numbers. VanVleet’s impact on Toronto this season has been about fit. He drives the bench lineup, he’s not a ball-dominant guy when paired with the starters. He just fits when he’s out there, and impacts the game in intangible ways.
In tonight’s Game 6 between Washington and Toronto, we saw how VanVleet can lift up the lineups he’s in, even when he’s not scoring in volume. The undrafted guard turned around the Raptors bench’s poor stretch of play, as the five-man unit found six minutes of fourth quarter magic. Along with typical Kyle Lowry moments to close it out, that was the story of this 102-92 Raptors win.
Of course, this means a 4-2 series win for the Raptors, as they await the winner between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers. VanVleet had a quiet five points (+12), but look up the line and you see what he brought. Pascal Siakam, almost invisible in Games 3 and 4, had 11 points and eight rebounds. Jakob Poeltl, who was still largely bad in this game, finished +4 thanks to the all-bench minutes. Jonas Valanciunas, who spent time with the bench in the first half, finished a +6 with 14 points and 12 rebounds. It was near-dominant, in a series where the bench damn near disappeared.
It didn’t look so decisive in the early goings. Washington opened up the game leading 15-4, launching a 10-0 run on the backs of missed Toronto layups and subsequent run-out opportunities. With Raptors guards stuck under the basket, the hungry Wizards were able to take advantage. It also didn’t help that nobody on Toronto could make a shot from anywhere else. While Washington cooled from a 6-for-8 start to go 10-for-24, the Raptors were a similarly poor 36% from the field. The Wizards led by ten going to the second quarter.
It was here where we got the first taste of a bench mob with a new lease on life. Fred VanVleet got his first game action since Game 2, and immediately made an impact with his bench mates (Jonas Valanciunas played in place of Jakob Poeltl, who had two quick fouls in the first quarter). VanVleet looped a pass to Valanciunas for a dunk to start his shift and followed up with a beauty to Siakam.
The lineup was strong defensively too, as Valanciunas continued to clean up the glass behind them, and went +5 in their shift.
After that stretch, transitional lineups became an issue for the Raptors. The starters didn’t play particularly well in the first half, as Serge Ibaka struggled with his grip and his shot. A small 4-0 Wizards run helped them regain the lead. As Toronto turned back to an Ibaka-Poeltl pairing to end the quarter, the typical defensive lapses of those two kept the Raptors from gaining any ground. The Wizards led 53-50 at halftime.
The third also started poorly for the starting five. The Wizards, however, went back to their Game 5 strategy of playing John Wall and Bradley Beal through almost the entire quarter (more on this in a moment). Some missed opportunities on both sides ended in an ugly frame, as Washington went into the fourth up 78-73.
Then, the Raptors returned to form. With a fully healthy roster, Dwane Casey went back to tried-and-true lineups. To start the fourth, he brought back the bench broskis — Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl.
Considering the individual struggles of those five, it was incredible to see the result on the floor. The mob went +9 in their first three minutes on the floor, with a VanVleet three tying the game before they took the lead. The unit played frenetic defence too, while opening up space for each other on offence where there hadn’t been for five games.
Washington also got tired — Wall got just a 27-second break in the second half, and even staggering didn’t help his gas tank as time ticked down. Wall (40 minutes) and Beal (43 minutes) combined for 55 of the Wizards 92 points, but simply couldn’t keep up their play when the Raptors closing front line of Siakam and Valanciunas got physical.
The bench played solid for half the damn quarter. Then, Kyle Lowry closed proceedings. Lowry had an amazing night — 24 points, six assists, six rebounds, and two steals — and on three successive plays late, he dropped a three, flew into traffic to grab a loose ball, and made a wild hook shot over Marcin Gortat to put it out of reach.
The Raptors held on, and got delicious revenge at the buzzer, as Delon Wright blocked the hell out of Kelly Oubre Jr. — who had kinda said he would kill Wright earlier in the day? It was weird.
The narrative finish was as delicious as the basketball one. The Raptors move on to the second round, having dispersed of a tough Washington team. What feels even better, though, is that we saw the Raptors as we’ve known them all season: VanVleet making plays with the bench, Lowry in all the right spots, DeRozan’s off-nights (6-for-18) lifted by his supporting cast.
Finally, in Game 6 — the last game of the series — we saw a Raptors team we can believe in going forward. Health and depth are amazing things.