TORONTO – Fred VanVleet looked like he had finally run out of gas.
The Raptors’ guard played the entire third quarter, scoring 18 of his – at the time – 46 points and helping his team take a commanding lead over Orlando. The frame came to an end with VanVleet sprinting the length of the court to chase down Terrence Ross, stripping him of the ball at the rim and preventing a buzzer-beating layup.
He crouched down in the paint, elbows on his knees. He should have been exhausted, nobody would have blamed him if he was, but that wasn’t the problem, as it turned out.
“No, I didn’t run out of gas, I saw that, somebody said I ran out of gas, but I was hit below the belt,” VanVleet revealed following his historic night – a 54-point masterpiece in Toronto’s 123-108 win over the Magic.
VanVleet set a Raptors’ franchise record for most point in a game, passing his former teammate DeMar DeRozan, who scored 52 in 2018. This wasn’t a typical 50-point performance, though, which is what made it – and what makes the player behind it – so special.
In most cases, when a player is having the game of their life offensively and seeing the ball go through the rim as much as VanVleet did on Tuesday, you might expect them to come down and jack up as many shots as the 48-minute window will allow. Some would mail it in defensively, thinking only of where their next three might come from.
However, the 26-year-old needed just 23 field goal attempts, hitting 17 of them. He drained 11 of his 14 three-point tries – tied for the seventh-most any NBA player has ever made in a game, and coming one shy of Donyell Marshall’s team record – and he knocked down all nine of his free throws. No player has ever reached the 50-point plateau with a higher true shooting percentage (100.1). In other words, you probably won’t see a more efficient offensive display.
“It was easy,” VanVleet said. “No disrespect to the Magic, but I mean for most of those I was open. They were in rhythm. They were clean looks. They were within the offense. That’s why I was able to remain patient and still pass out of double teams and not take bad shots, because of the way I got all my points.”
As well as he shot the ball, and as much as he scored, he almost certainly expended more energy on the defensive end, where he recorded three steals and three blocks and continued to make his case as one of the league’s best two-way guards.
Effort plays like the strip steal on Ross to end the third quarter have become a regular part of VanVleet’s game. Even if the jumper isn’t falling, like when he shot 1-for-7 from long range in the first of two wins over Orlando this week, Toronto can still bank on him making an impact defensively. On nights like this, his boundless energy and effort just make the offensive output that much more impressive.
“It’s his makeup, it’s his character, that’s the way he plays,” said Nick Nurse, who’s team improved to 9-12 with the win. “I think of all the guys on the team this year, he’s been ready and he’s played both ends and he’s played solidly almost every night out. It’s how he plays. It’s a credit to him and it’s awesome he plays that way, for sure.”
“He’s a winner, simple as that,” said Kyle Lowry, who quietly recorded his 15th triple-double as a member of the Raptors on Tuesday, with his 10th assist setting VanVleet up for his record-breaking bucket. “He wants to win, and he wants to help his team win at the highest of levels. That’s how he’s been special. He’s been a guy that just plays hard and does whatever it takes to win basketball games.”
As VanVleet was finishing up his post-game interview on the team broadcast, Lowry and the rest of the Raptors’ players were waiting by the door in the visitor’s locker room at Amway Center. When he walked in they showered him with water bottles. Lowry, a mentor to VanVleet from his rookie season in Toronto, was the first to give him a hug and would present him with the game ball.
There aren’t many players around, especially young ones, that would elicit that kind of reaction from their teammates, guys that have the respect and admiration of everybody in the room. But if you aren’t rooting for VanVleet, or you can’t appreciate his story and how far he’s come, then you’re truly missing out.
His 54 points were the most scored by an undrafted player in NBA history, passing the great Moses Malone, who had 53 points back in 1982. In 2016, VanVleet famously bet on himself after all 30 teams passed on him, most of them multiple times. He clawed and scraped his way onto the Raptors’ roster and honed his craft in the G League before blossoming into a Finals hero and NBA champion, and signing a four-year, $85 million deal this past off-season.
“Y’all know how I feel about him, that’s my little brother, man, and I’m proud of him,” Lowry said. “You can’t put into words the amount of work that went in there… I’m happy to be a part of the process. I was more hype than he was trying to get [him] 50 points. Words can’t describe how I feel right now.”
“I pride myself on trying to play the right way,” said VanVleet. “When you play with a pure heart and a clear conscience and a clear soul, some good things happen for you, and your teammates will be happy for you.”
If the Raptors are going to turn their disappointing season around, they’re going to need a spark. These two wins were a start, even if they did come against the lowly Magic. Toronto had lost three straight going into this two-game series with Orlando, and will play eight of the next nine contests away from its home base in Tampa. When you’re struggling, as this team has for most of the campaign, you’ll take what you can get.
It’s been a while since they’ve experienced something like this, though – a moment of joy that can bring them together as a team. Perhaps VanVleet’s big night can be their spark.
“They were more excited all night than I was, and that’s a testament to this group and this team and the direction that we’re going and just the love we have for one another,” VanVleet said. “The win was big, for sure, but just those moments, it’s hard to kinda get together with all these COVID protocols and things like that, the team vibe, but moments like that bring us all closer.”