The last three games gave us a window into the Toronto Raptors world without Fred VanVleet in it. I didn’t care for it too much.
The lack of shooting was obvious throughout, but the Raptors also missed VanVleet’s presence and ability to take over games for short stretches. Though Malachi Flynn impressed as a backup, the loss of Fred created a trickle down effect to the bench, creating a lack of offensive production throughout the lineup. That this added up to a three-game losing streak created heavy consternation, from criticism of the coaching to the front office to the players and everything in between. (Can we all relax a little bit?)
It was great news, then, when TSN’s Kayla Grey revealed early today that VanVleet was healthy, rested and ready to return to action as Toronto visited the San Antonio Spurs — a team they had beaten twice in a row dating back to Tampa.
VanVleet came out and played the perfect game, all things considered. In a modest (for him) 34 minutes, which included a lot of hockey substitutions to keep him fresh, Fred racked up 26 points on 7-for-15 shooting, including 3-for-8 from three, along with six rebounds and two assists.
Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes chipped in 20 points each, the latter scoring 18 of his total in the second half, as the Raptors beat the Spurs going away, 119-104.
Keldon Johnson led the Spurs with 27 points (10-for-19 from the field) and Dejounte Murray continued a strong stretch of play, even in a losing effort, with 25 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds in a near triple-double.
VanVleet’s start was indicative of how the rest of his game would go. While the Raptors starting lineup continues to lack spacing, especially when they go up against a savvy interior defender like Jakob Poeltl, Fred was able to make up for it with intuition. He improvised a pair of layups over help defense to give Toronto an early 10-4 lead, forcing the Spurs to take the first timeout.
San Antonio, to their credit, answered with a 6-2 run of their own and when VanVleet sat out for the last 3:35 of the quarter, the offensive keys were turned over to Pascal Siakam. Siakam, whose continued excellence almost seems overlooked these days, had another typical first quarter — racking up 11 points and four rebounds while shooting 4-for-6, to get the Raptors headed to the second up 34-29.
With Toronto settling into a bench lineup to start the second, San Antonio started to get hot. Three straight triples cut Toronto’s lead to four, including one made by Lonnie Walker, who scored 11 of his 13 in the game in the first half to give the home side a boost.
The Raptors offense stagnated in the second, on the other hand, with the main storyline being the lack of shots for Scottie Barnes. Going just 1-for-2 in the first half, Barnes was coming up against heavy pressure near the key as the Spurs all but ignored Khem Birch on the opposite side. Barnes wasn’t overly aggressive in looking for shots either, but that and the situation led to him being the forgotten man. Though the Spurs would go into halftime up 61-58, that wouldn’t last.
Barnes had the first shot of the second half, a left-handed banker from the middle of the paint, and didn’t look back. He would go on to score 12 points in the third quarter alone, as the Raptors shrugged off the Spurs lead and turned out an 18-8 run. Capped by a Thad Young floater, Toronto went into the fourth up 91-84.
While the Raptors may have looked as thin as they had through their losing streak coming into that stretch, Barnes going off affirmed that when at least four of Toronto’s top guys are in, the team is pretty good. Precious Achiuwa had 13 off the bench and went +16, but otherwise the offensive production outside of the top guys came in fits and starts.
Two players who deserve kudos here, though, despite their statistical impact being minimal, are Thad Young and Dalano Banton. Combining for 13 points, the two made all the right plays in lineups that shifted continuously throughout the game. Young capped the aforementioned 18-8 run with a post spin that fooled the Spurs defense, while Banton had a steal and score in the open floor that gave the Raptors their first double digit lead. There was no looking back after.
With this one in the rear view mirror, the Raptors now look ahead to a difficult back-to-back, as they play the Suns and Nuggets on Friday and Saturday.