TORONTO — When Fred VanVleet threw up a three-point attempt late in the first quarter on Tuesday, it was as the nearly 20,000 fans at Scotiabank Arena were collectively willing the ball to fall through the hoop.
The roar when it did? Deafening.
After several sub-par post-season performances from the Raptors player known as “Steady Freddy,” the backup point guard finally had a decent night — and it was emblematic of Toronto’s 125-89 rout of Philadelphia. Everyone had a hand in it.
“You heard it. It was loud,” VanVleet said of the fan reaction. “It was as if I hadn’t made a shot in three years. It felt good to see one go down. I missed a couple after that, but whatever. It is what it is. We won.
“At this point of the year, I’m not concerned with numbers. Obviously they’re pretty ugly right now. The only one that matters right now is 3-2.”
The Raptors travel back to Philadelphia for Thursday’s Game 6 just one win away from their second conference final appearance in franchise history (the first was in 2016). The fact Tuesday’s win required no Kawhi Leonard heroics — and was Toronto’s best all-around win of these playoffs, and the biggest margin of victory in Raptors history — is a wave of momentum to ride in on.
VanVleet, who made “Bet on Yourself” his catchphrase after he went undrafted in 2016, has shot just 3-for-18 through five games. His three-pointer on Tuesday was his first field goal after being blanked for three straight games.
This wobbly stretch has been uncharacteristic and tough for the well-liked point guard who was a major part of the team’s talented “bench mob,” a second unit that came up big in Toronto’s opening-round series-clinching win last season against Washington.
When the 25-year-old from Rockford, Ill., sat out four games of last post-season with a shoulder injury, he was sorely missed.
This year, it’s felt like a collective holding of breath while the bench struggles on the floor.
“I could sit here and tell you how I’m a team player and I’m locked in and I’m playing great defence. But I know what it is. I feel it just like you guys see it. Staying engaged and staying locked in is the easy part,” VanVleet said. “To be upset with yourself and to be disappointed is part of the game. It’s part of being a human being. I’m not a robot. I go out there and go through the highs and lows just like anybody else.
It’s about being able to navigate through the highs and lows and still bring the “non-negotiables” to the table — defence, energy, leadership — said VanVleet, who was solid in defending J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris on Tuesday.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse was pleased to see a three-pointer fall shortly after VanVleet checked in Tuesday.
“I’ll tell you what else, he called a couple really good plays,” Nurse said. “Way down at the other end, the ball got sideline and Fred called a play and we ended up getting a roll basket dunk on it. Those are the kinds of leadership things and IQ things that he also brings.”
Virtually every Raptor brought something on Tuesday. Through the first four games, Toronto had been outscored a ridiculous 48.7 points per 100 possessions when Leonard was on the bench. But Tuesday, all five Raptors starters scored in double figures for the first time in the series.
The team that boasts the best player in the series actually played like the best team in the series as the Raptors looked more like themselves than they had perhaps this entire post-season.
“We feel we’ve got a bunch of guys that can shoot pretty much always on the floor, with five guys that can potentially knock down a shot,” Nurse said. “We made some (Tuesday), I think that really fuels you, it really gives you energy and a momentum boost. It’s hard to continue to play really tough defence all the time when you’re getting discouraged because your shot’s not going in.”
Kyle Lowry pushed the pace — to the tune of 33 points in transition — caroming through, around and into Philadelphia’s defence, drawing contact, creating space and finding the open man.
Danny Green’s three-pointers were falling — finally. He connected on five of seven attempts. And Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, sporting a huge egg and three stitches after an accidental whack to the forehead from Leonard, played great in tandem. When Gasol drained an open three-pointer, Ibaka wrapped the big Spaniard in a hug.
“I just said, ‘Good shot, we need that,'” Ibaka said.
Ibaka hadn’t had a great post-season until Tuesday.
“Tonight he was Serge,” Green said. “Blocking shots, getting to the rim, finishing, shooting his pick-and-pop. I think that elbow to the head woke him up so it was good.”
Nurse added: “Serge is playing with some tremendous . . . I just think pride is what he’s playing with, he’s being big and active and a force out there.”
Pascal Siakam — who played with “RIP Dad” written on his shoes; his dad died in 2014 — had been an excellent second option to Leonard before suffering a calf contusion in Game 3. If it was hurting him Tuesday night as he scraped and clawed his way to 25 points, it was tough to tell.
“It’s feeling better,” Siakam said. “I think just every day . . . it’s my calf, and it’s my hamstring, so it’s both combined. The staff is doing a great job to make sure that I get treatment, keep icing, and keep taking care of it. It’s going to need some rest, but we don’t have time, so I just have to do my best to make sure when gametime comes I’m ready.”
A Game 7 would be in Toronto on Sunday, but the Raptors would rather avoid that scenario.
Awaiting the winner is either the Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics. The Bucks took a 3-1 series lead into Wednesday night’s game.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press