It’s been a slog of a season for the Raptors—a fits-and-starts sequence of scuffles and disappointments, from the overarching bummer of a year-long road trip in Tampa to the persistent challenge of rediscovering themselves after losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in free agency. They’ve hung around the fringes of the East’s playoff race while Nick Nurse tinkers—they’re currently 9-12 and in ninth place—but they’ve scarcely resembled the team that won the title two seasons ago and came within two possessions of the conference finals in the bubble. They’ve stayed afloat, but they haven’t seemed special.
On Tuesday night in Orlando, though, special showed up.
It started, appropriately enough, from humble beginnings. After an injured (and frankly not very good) Orlando team opened the game with 11 straight points, Fred VanVleet set an off-ball screen on a baseline out-of-bounds play, and then popped out to the 3-point arc while two Magic defenders went with Pascal Siakam. The result was an open jumper that finally got Toronto on the board more than three minutes into the game. A simple play, a clean look, a frustrating start abated: something to build on. A tiny spark.
“I knew after my first shot went in that I was going to shoot the ball well,” VanVleet told reporters after the game.
Before long, that spark exploded into a roaring fire that absolutely incinerated the Magic—and left VanVleet in serious need of a cooldown.
VanVleet hit shots created by extra passes, drilled them off dribble handoffs, and splashed them curling off pindowns, moving all over the floor in the flow of the Raptors’ sorely needed 123-108 victory. He hit bailout shots at the end of the shot clock and pull-ups early in transition, taking advantage of every opportunity he saw to catch Orlando’s defense napping. When the Magic pressed up on him above the arc, he attacked the closeouts, slithering into the lane for layups in traffic. A couple of times, he fired from extra deep—those “eff you” 3s from two or three steps behind the line designed to stick a finger directly in the eye of the defense—just because he could. Because, on this night, the 6-footer from Rockford, Illinois, just could not friggin’ miss.
By the time it was over, VanVleet had totaled 54 points—a new franchise record, topping the 52 that DeMar DeRozan scored against the Bucks on New Year’s Day of 2018. DeMar, to his credit, didn’t seem to mind sliding down the list:
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
Fred VanVleet broke DeMar DeRozan's Raptors record with 54 points: "It was only a matter of time. Every time I get 30 or 34 I usually get a text from DeMar telling me I'm weak for not passing his record, so I definitely had him in mind as I got close down the stretch."— matt eppers (@meppers_) February 3, 2021
VanVleet reduced the Magic to rubble with bone-chilling efficiency: 17-for-23 from the field, 11-for-14 from 3-point land, 9-for-9 from the free throw line. Only James Harden has ever scored more points in a game while taking 25 or fewer shots.
According to the Stathead database, VanVleet produced the 25th most productive individual performance since 1983; the list of players to match or exceed his game score (think: single-game PER) of 50.3 includes 10 current Hall of Famers, three active players with MVP trophies, and a handful of perennial All-Stars. That’s some awfully heady company for a player who went undrafted out of Wichita State after averaging just 12.2 points per game on 39 percent shooting as a senior—a dude whose story reads like the stuff of inspirational Disney movie fantasy soundtracked by soaring string music, only we’re watching it unfold in real time.
A two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, VanVleet deliberately passed on multiple chances to be drafted in the second round by teams that wanted to stash him in what was then called the D League for several years; instead, he intentionally went undrafted, and tried to earn a guaranteed deal with a team of his choosing. That gamble paid off: After playing well in summer league, Toronto signed him to a two-year deal. Continuing to excel with the Raptors’ G League affiliate earned him a rotation role with the NBA club in his second season; shining in that role brought a two-year, $18 million contract in 2018.
All along, he kept developing, extending his range, honing his game. He went from Kyle Lowry’s understudy and a key second-unit piece to a Finals folk hero on an NBA championship team. (He even earned a Finals MVP vote from the sainted Hubie Brown!) From there, he evolved into a bona fide starter alongside Lowry in one of the NBA’s best two-way backcourts. This past offseason, he became one of the league’s most sought-after free agents, securing the biggest bag of his career to stay right where he’d made his name, cementing himself as a foundational piece of the Raptors’ future—once a stone that 29 other franchises rejected, and now a cornerstone.
Five years ago, Fred VanVleet was an undersized mid-major prospect with an uncertain future. Now, he’s an $85 million man, one of just 13 players in the league averaging 20-6-4, and one of five players ever to go for 50 points with three blocks and three steals in a game, joining—no bullshit—Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dirk Nowitzki, and Anthony Davis.
Even VanVleet’s most ardent supporters would never in their wildest dreams have imagined all this was possible. And yet, here he is, trying to lift his team back into the playoff picture by elevating himself into All-Star contention—standing shoulder to shoulder with giants (well, not literally) in large part because he stays committed to the grind on the ground.
As amazing as all of those long-range bombs were, the play that stood out most to me as I was watching on Tuesday night came in the final seconds of the third quarter. Siakam drove middle, looking for the last shot of the frame, only for Magic rookie Chuma Okeke to knock the ball away and send Terrence Ross—one of the three other players in Raptors history with a 50-ball, by the way—out in transition for a layup.
Or so he thought.
VanVleet—who had played the entire third quarter, providing the offensive onslaught that put the Raptors on top—sprinted the entire length of the court from the right corner, and caught Ross deep in the paint before he could get his shot attempt off. He stripped the ball loose, controlled possession, kept it in bounds, and ended the quarter.
Before heading to the bench, VanVleet crouched down to catch his breath. He was gassed, totally spent, because in the process of producing the best offensive game of his life, he couldn’t stop being the dude who refuses to give up an easy bucket that would cut a 14-point lead down to 12.
Michael Grange of Sportsnet asked about that play after the game. Nurse described it as VanVleet’s “makeup, it’s his character, that’s the way he plays.” Lowry—who covered the other bases while VanVleet carried the scoring load, chipping in 14 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, and four steals in his franchise-record 15th triple-double—struck a similar note.
“He’s a winner. Simple as that,” Lowry said. “He wants to win, and he wants to help his team win at the highest of levels. That’s how he’s been special.”
All season long, the Raptors have needed some “special.” The way VanVleet provided it was surprising; that he’s the one who provided it at all, though, isn’t, given the remarkable road he’s walked to this point.