A few weeks back in this space, I mentioned how every once in a while I found writing this column after every game to be… less than enjoyable.
Sometimes, watching basketball can be an exercise in misery… and quite often, those times come in February in the middle of a long NBA season. (Or, you know, every time the Toronto Raptors play the Miami Heat.)
But sometimes — even in early February in a pandemic — basketball is an exercise in pure joy. And that’s what we got last night, as Fred VanVleet caught fire, hit 11 three-pointers and scored a franchise-record 54 points as the Toronto Raptors swept the Orlando Magic aside for the second straight game.
1. Fred’s Big Night
Fifty-four points! On 23 shots! On 28 possessions! Holy efficient, Batman. But you know what the best part of Fred VanVleet’s night was? How intense he was on defense. I don’t know the last time I saw a player score 50 and still give ‘er the other the way Fred VanVleet did last night. He was everywhere in the Orlando offensive zone, disrupting plays, knocking dribbles away, getting his hands on passes — and even blocking shots, apparently!
He finished with three steals, three blocks (well, two strips and one kinda-sorta-maybe block but really just a deflection), three deflections and only one — one! — turnover in 37 minutes.
I, on the other hand, finished with about 13 exultations of joy, one for every time Fred shot the ball after halftime (and one scream of rage when DeAndre’ Bembry fired up a three while a wiiiiiide open VanVleet sat waiting in the corner).
Looks like the previous franchise record holder, DeMar DeRozan, enjoyed it as well:
Congrats to my brotha Freddy V! Kyle old ass couldn’t do it. Glad you did champ! Been telling you!— DeMar DeRozan (@DeMar_DeRozan) February 3, 2021
It was one for the ages, one of those games I’m glad to have watched — even in early February in the middle of a pandemic.
2. Freight Train Baynes
The Raptors were struggling mightily early on, letting the Magic build an 11-0 lead right out of the gate. What ultimately got them going? This hilarious dunk from Aron Baynes:
I know players can get lost in transition, but how do you allow Aron Baynes to rumble all the way down the floor without even a bump?
Guess he’s pretty sneaky, that 260 lbs, 6’10” Australian.
3. The Lowry-Bembry Connection
DeMar DeRozan may no longer hold the Raptors’ scoring record, but he surely still has the record for “alley-oop dunks from Kyle Lowry” (if such a stat exists). That one will surely never be broken, but you know what, it’s been real nice to see Lowry hooking up DeAndre’ Bembry on three ‘oops over the past two games.
For all of their transition excellence the past couple of years, the Raptors haven’t had a lot of high-flyers. I really miss the old Lowry-DeRozan alley-oop connection, so it’s been fun to see it rekindled with Bembry.
4. Active Hands
The Raptors had 76 deflections in the second quarter last night (numbers approximate), and it really helped keep them in the game when their rim protection and closeouts were a step slow. After falling behind by seven with four minutes to go in the period, the Raps forced four steals over the next four minutes to take a four-point halftime lead.
They ended up forcing 17 turnovers, had 14 steals and 19 deflections (numbers legit!). Their defense is still not where it needs to be, but those active hands are gonna continue taking advantage of careless teams.
5. Pascal Passing
After Pascal Siakam scorched the Magic for 30 points on Monday, with almost all of them coming in the paint, it’s no surprise that Steve Clifford sent the house at him last night. It resulted in a rough scoring night for Siakam, who went for 4-for-11 from the floor.
But Siakam continues to show strides in his passing game. He still had four turnovers — two of them on shaky pass attempts — but he finished with eight assists, including a couple solid heads-up looks in transition and a nice find of Bembry underneath the hoop when he was double-teamed.
Pascal continues to have an up-and-down year, but he’s still showing signs of improvement. I think it’s only a matter of time before he starts putting it all together consistently.
The Raptors get a couple of days of to celebrate Fred’s big night, and then they’ll face one of their toughest tests of the season: The Brooklyn Nets and their big three, in New York, on Friday.