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Best Moment of the Week: Fred VanVleet pours in 54

In a rare moment of pure joy in this wild season, Fred VanVleet broke the Raptors’ single-game scoring record.

Toronto Raptors Best Moment of the Week: Fred VanVleet pours in 54 points Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Kyle Lowry (43). Pascal Siakam (44). Chris Bosh (44). Kawhi Leonard (45). Vince Carter (51). DeMar DeRozan (52). They’re the greatest Raptors of all time, and you’ll find all of their names on the list of Toronto Raptors’ best single-game scoring performances.

But none of them has ever scored as many points in a Raptors uniform as Fred VanVleet did on Tuesday night in Orlando.

With 54 points in the Raptors’ 123-108 victory over the Orlando Magic, VanVleet set a new franchise record for scoring, and he did it in a sensationally efficient manner.

It took VanVleet only 23 field goals, and nine free throws, to get that 54. He had but one turnover! He only used 28 possessions! It’s simply an insane stat line. And even then, it doesn’t fully capture just how on fire Freddy was from distance. This man shot 11-for-12 from downtown before missing his last two, when he was absolutely exhausted, and he was absolutely scorching the nylon. The net barely moved on most of these shots!

It was also the type of performance, the type of joyful moment, this Toronto Raptors team desperately needed as they navigate through this unprecedeted — yes, I said it! — season.

*****

There’s no need to tell you about who Fred VanVleet is at this point; you know the story of the undrafted, undersized guard who never did anything but win in his four years at unheralded Wichita State, who proudly stood up on draft night, after waiting for hours and not hearing his name, and “bet on himself.”

VanVleet signed on with the Raptors, who sent him through their development program with the Raptors 905 in Mississauga; all he did there was lead the team to the G-League (then D-League) championship.

After leading the Raptors’ bench mob in the team’s franchise-record setting 58-win season in 2017-2018, he signed a two-year, $18 million contract in the offseason... and then was a massive part of the team’s NBA title run in 2019, scorching the Bucks for three games and then guarding the hell out of Stephen Curry in the NBA Finals (and receiving, as Matt Devlin reminded us on Tuesday, a Finals MVP vote from NBA Hall of Famer Hubie Brown).

He then set all kinds of career highs in 2019-20, and helped the Raptors set a new franchise winning percentage in their wonderful post-championship victory lap, before signing a new, four-year, $85 million contract in the offseason.

And now he’s the Raptors’ record holder for single game scoring.

It’s a dang movie script, basically. And it’s still being written!

*****

Speaking of movie scripts, let’s go back to this Raptors season, which in many ways, has been a horror movie — or perhaps a psychological thriller.

In the midst of a global pandemic that has seen millions die, most of the rest of us all but trapped in our homes, and a few misguided souls ignoring public health advice and doing everything they can to make life miserable for everyone else, the NBA has insisted on going forward with its games.

That meant, at first, a bubble, for everyone. It means, now, for the Toronto Raptors, playing thousands of kilometres away from home — while every other NBA team, while still dealing with testing and movement restrictions and empty arenas, at least gets to play in their home market. The Raptors? Every game is an away game. They don’t get to go home after a game or road trip and sleep in their own beds. They don’t have their own locker room. They’re practicing in a hotel ballroom! And it’s still a pandemic. It’s got to be exhausting, mentally and physically.

As a result of their displacement, and a weakened roster thanks to the offseason departures of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, the Raptors have had a tough start to their season, going 8-12 heading into Tuesday night’s game, even against a pretty mild schedule. Thanks to all of the above, even the wins had been fairly joyless.

That’s what makes Tuesday night’s accomplishment, even though it’s a personal one for VanVleet, a beautiful moment for the entire team.

Look at the joy, the excitement! Listen to the pride in Kyle Lowry’s voice. This team needed this. It’s obviously too early to say whether or not this will actually impact the outcome of the team’s season, but a moment like this, that brings the team together, that gives them something to root for and celebrate, when there’s so much else going on around them to drag them down, can absolutely crystallize things. It can improve chemistry, it can make everyone root harder and play harder for each other. Look at Malachi Flynn, hiding behind the door in that clip. This is a rookie, who’s barely played and not particularly well, and he’s absolutely feeling like he’s part of the team in this moment, and loving it.

[Editor’s Note: The Raptors have removed the video, but in it, the Raptors hide behind the locker doom door and shower VanVleet with water when he enters the locker room; Kyle Lowry then goes on to talk about how proud he is of his “little brother” VanVleet.]

For me, as a fan, it gave me a similar feeling. I was so into watching VanVleet in the second half, practically screaming after every bucket. I hate that the Raptors are playing in Tampa, I hate that they’re not playing well, I hate that we may not see Kyle Lowry play in Toronto ever again. It’s hard to watch these games at times, and even when the team plays well, the constant thought of but it’s a pandemic and they’re risking their health to entertain us still makes me deeply uncomfortable.

But then, something like VanVleet’s magical night happens, and you’re able to set all of that aside for a moment. Much like Freddy himself was in the zone, as a viewer you can also get in the zone and just live in that moment and experience it and take every ounce of joy from it that you can.

It’s an awesome feeling, and it gave us the best moment of the week — and of the entire season, so far.

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