Fred VanVleet has been hot before and we remember those games well. It’s hard to forget, what with the Raptors benefitting to the tune of their first NBA championship and all. The primal roar, the Hubie Brown Finals MVP vote, the missing teeth—simply unforgettable.
While that was the absolute pinnacle, over the course of his tenure with the Raptors organization, VanVleet has created several special memories and Tuesday night he did something that will go down in NBA history forever. VanVleet eclipsed DeMar DeRozan’s 52 points and scored a franchise-record 54 points—the most ever by an undrafted player—and narrowly missed out on another franchise record with 11 three-point makes, one short of tying Donyell Marshall. The 100.1 true shooting percentage is the highest of anyone in NBA history to record a 50-point game.
“It was easy,” VanVleet said after the 123-108 win over the Orlando Magic. “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 offence. 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. There were maybe one or two quick, bad shots, if that. Most of those were in rhythm, within the offence, playing in the flow of the game, and I even told the guys, ‘You guys keep playing.’
“I could feel them start to look for me to the point where they weren’t looking at the rim anymore. I wanted to win more than I wanted 50 points. Just trying to continue to play with a pure heart and let the game come to me, and I was rewarded for that.”
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’s a testament to VanVleet’s spirit and temperament that playing the game the right way was all that mattered even as history beckoned. There was the final play of the third quarter when he sprinted back to defend an Orlando Magic transition opportunity and swiped the ball away from Terrence Ross. There was the kind smile and encouragement he offered DeAndre Bembry when he was wide open for a three-pointer in the corner but Bembry shot it himself, and of course, the three blocks showcasing how he has perfected the art of stripping the ball away from opponents as they rise up to shoot.
“I’ve got to talk to the league about that,” VanVleet said. “I think I would be for sure in the running for the steals leader every year if the swipe downs were listed as steals. But I’ll take the blocks as well, I’m creeping up that ladder.”
When VanVleet entered free agency this past off-season there seemed little doubt that the Raptors needed to maintain his services. Is four years and $85-million already looking like a bargain? A night like this leaves little room for debate. But the stature of the man within stands just as tall as the accomplishments he’s adding to his resume on the basketball court. VanVleet has become an integral member of the Raptors’ culture with his gritty leadership, never-say-die attitude, and swagger. He has become one of the key voices in the locker room and been just as vocal in speaking against racial injustice the Black community has suffered.
As VanVleet got nearer the previous franchise-record and eventually passed it, there was an appreciation from teammates, coaches, and all members of the organization involved that pointed to just how much he means to them beyond putting a basketball through a hoop.
“Y’all know how I feel about him,” Kyle Lowry, the greatest Raptor of all-time said. “That’s my little brother, man, and I’m proud of him. I seen DeMar [DeRozan] sent out the tweet saying I was too old to get it, and I am. But my two guys, DeMar and Freddy, have the records, and even Terrence is in there, and I was able to witness all three of those 50-point games. They all are special to me. Tonight is really special because it came from a kid who was undrafted, worked his way to an NBA player, and an NBA starter, and possibly this year an All-Star and possibly an All-Defensive Player. That’s what makes it really special.”
A bumpy 2-8 start to the season suggested the Raptors had lost too much in the off-season through the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. But as the season progresses and the Raptors having won 7 of 11 to improve to 9-12, it appears the early growing pains of moving to Tampa and new players having to learn the system and earn their place in the rotation are slowly but steadily fading in the rearview mirror.
The bonding moments that can usually occur on the road—the Raptors are in the midst of playing nine of 10 on the road—have largely been eliminated as COVID protocols have meant that players can’t go out together and explore a city or eat out at a restaurant. For this Toronto team that has been battling to find their best selves, a moment where they could all bask in the glory of one—that was also glory for all because of the win that accompanied it—can make all the difference in the world.
“Probably just celebrating with my teammates and seeing them be happier for me than I am for myself,” VanVleet said on what memory from the night he’ll cherish most from the night besides the win. “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.”
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