May 25, 2019, 2:00 am
Fred VanVleet made up for lost time in Game 5.
VanVleet had struggled mightily over his playoff run, adding to the Raptors’ depth problem and furthering the “one-man team” narrative that had taken hold after Kawhi Leonard’s individual dominance had bailed the team out repeatedly.
In the 16 games prior to Thursday, VanVleet had been good for 4.6 points and 0.7 triples per game on .298 from the field (.250 from deep). Keep in mind that those numbers include his Game 4, a 13-point, six-assist, three-triple performance in which he shot 5-of-6 from the field. It had been rough sledding.
To say that VanVleet has gotten the “baby bump” – that his two best games have come following the birth of Fred Jr. has not gone unnoticed – ignores the larger body of work. VanVleet is a season removed from being one of the league’s very best reserves and a finalist for Sixth Man of the Year. Though he missed a good chunk of the season’s second half and has gone missing in the playoffs, this is a player that the Raptors have grown to trust and lean on through all the ups and downs. “Steady Freddie” has been a fitting nickname in more ways than one.
Beyond the organizational fit between an overlooked UDFA and a team that built its brand on outsider status among the NBA’s other successful franchises, VanVleet’s performance has generally been representative of the Raptors’ as a whole – long periods of offensive strife that dominate the conversation over quality defensive play.
Game 5 also illustrated what might happen when that slump ends and the threes start falling. VanVleet, and the Raptors at large, are pushing into new territory.
On Thursday, VanVleet was able to post a playoff career-high of 21 points and set a new career-best with seven 3-pointers in a single game. It was only the fourth time in his career that VanVleet had hit five or more threes in the same game, and the third time that he had done so against the Bucks.
That the Raptors set a new playoff-high with 18 made threes on the night is because of VanVleet’s performance, and the fact that they had only topped their season average of 12.4 threes per game six times in the postseason is undoubtedly a result of his earlier struggles. Toronto is 5-1 in those games, with the lone loss coming in Game 1 against the Bucks – which they led for over three quarters before collapsing in a 5-for-22 fourth quarter.
Game 5 saw Toronto dip into some troubling old patterns, namely missing good shots early in the opening frame. The Raptors started the game off with five 3-point attempts, one of which was made by Kawhi Leonard while the other four were open looks. It’s the sort of shaky start that has previously rattled the Raptors, encouraging the team to resort to hero ball while passing up shots that the offense is designed to create. There was never an instance where the Raptors looked to fall all the way into those traps on Thursday.
VanVleet got his fair share of open looks, but he also made some of his own luck. Watch him relocate as the defense locks into a static shape. Eric Bledsoe sees the pass and takes steps towards the corner, where he expects the shooter to be.
They’ve been able to trust their offensive game plan throughout the postseason and have been rewarded against the Bucks. The open triples that rimmed out against Philadelphia are now dropping, and the Raptors have made 15 more threes than a prolific Milwaukee team that hit the second-most of any team in the league during the regular season. The Bucks’ scheme concedes threes to lesser threats, and it’s those secondary contributors who are now making them pay dearly for their choices.
As mentioned in our look at Game 4, VanVleet’s defense has been largely outstanding in the postseason. Through the first two rounds he held Terrence Ross to 20 points 6-of-19 shooting in 104 possessions and J.J. Redick to 18 points on 6-of-19 shooting in 132 possessions. He never allowed a shooting slump to detract from his effort on defense, and it’s one of the main reasons that he remained in the rotation even in his worst moments.
VanVleet’s commitment to that job is admirable considering his efforts are rarely the type that draw major praise. He’s not racking up big blocks, stopping drives or swarming offensive players. There’s no matchup for him that doesn’t feature a size disadvantage. VanVleet’s defensive output relies on relentless pursuit, timing and solid fundamentals. They’re pure effort plays, and it’s that sort of work that lifts Toronto’s floor substantially.
Eric Bledsoe got off to a quick start in Game 5, his first productive outing of the series, scoring nine of his 20 points in the first quarter on 3-of-4 from the field. He cooled off thanks in large part to more strong defensive work from VanVleet. That matchup saw Bledsoe go 0-for-5 from the field with no assists and two turnovers in 21 possessions, with the Bucks scoring 14 points in that time.
The fact that everything has clicked into place over the last two games certainly reinforces Toronto’s process. It wasn’t always easy, especially as the Bucks raced out to an 18-4 lead, but the Raptors were able to stay composed and quickly chip away, erasing the massive early deficit and drawing even in the second quarter.
It was a spot where many teams – including previous iterations of the Raptors – would fold, but they instead buckled down and limited the Bucks to 36.9 percent shooting on the evening, with more sterling play in the half-court.
Milwaukee’s hot start was aided by three Toronto turnovers in the first five minutes. They would commit just three more over the entire game.
That the Raptors’ secondary contributors have been able to work on their play in meaningful situations might help here. VanVleet went 1-for-11 in Game 3 but logged 31 minutes in a double-overtime win, and most of the Raptors that had struggled through the first two games seemed to be invigorated by working through their issues in real-time. Having pulled out a win in an extraordinarily high-leverage spot, those Raptors should not be prone to as much panic as the stakes ramp up. So far they have more than delivered.
That the Raptors never wavered despite a nightmarish opening on Thursday reveals something meaningful. They’re exhibiting a certain steadiness that breeds confidence in all situations, with few scenarios looking like true fatal blows.
In Game 5, Toronto was able to shake off a poor shooting start, keep on firing when necessary and lock in defensively without wilting under pressure. It’s fitting that VanVleet was a major part of the charge.
1 – VanVleet’s performance was top notch but we can’t go very far without dumping more praise on Kawhi Leonard. He ended the game with 35 points, seven rebounds, a career-high nine assists, two steals and five 3-pointers. Leonard was superb, as players of his caliber tend to be. In all honesty the main focus would’ve been on Leonard had we not done a deep dive on his play in Game 3. He was also looking rather spry after two games where he was clearly fighting through it, which is not what the Bucks want to see. Milwaukee tried to get creative with their defensive matchups to prepare for switches, namely by putting Antetokounmpo on Gasol and Lopez on Siakam, but Leonard was still able to find mismatches.
He was a force all over the floor, limiting Antetokounmpo on the defensive end and grabbing a gargantuan offensive rebound in the final two minutes. Marc Gasol gets a tip of the cap on this play, but there’s no way that Kawhi should be able to grab this ball off his own 3-point shot. Add it to the list of his second-tier incredible plays, with plenty of blame laid on the non-Giannis Bucks.
2 – All nine of Leonard’s assists came on 3-pointers, and he’s gotten increasingly effective at picking apart Milwaukee’s extra pressure. Of his nine dimes, six were kick-outs when Leonard was being tagged by multiple Bucks like so:
3 – Mike Budenholzer was forced into some ruthless rotation changes in Game 5, completely dropping Nikola Mirotic in the second half. Bud’s change of the starting lineup was long overdue and Mirotic didn’t fare any better off the bench. His shooting can be a difference-maker but the Raptors have rolled right over him defensively. There’s no more margin for error so it’ll be interesting to see how much he plays in Game 6.
4 – Marc Gasol was quiet in the box score with four points, six rebounds and a block, but he was giving the Raptors quality play and stepped up in the fourth quarter. Some hesitation crept back into his game after missing a few shots early but Gasol continues to anchor the team’s defense and is doing a great job contesting at the rim or stopping the Bucks before they get there.
He also drilled a 3-pointer to push the Raptors up seven with just under five minutes left in the fourth and grabbed a key offensive rebound in the final minute.
5 – Eric Bledsoe got off to a good start in Game 5, really his first stretch of anything other than poor play all series, but completely faded in the second half. His decision to pass up a layup to kick out to Malcolm Brogdon was questionable, and the fact that his bad pass resulted in a turnover was just about the nail in the coffin.
6 – The TNT broadcast was questioning why VanVleet wouldn’t attack Brook Lopez on the perimeter. VanVleet has the obvious speed edge and can easily turn the corner for a look at the rim, but that’s missing the point. The fact of the matter is that the Raptors want Lopez stretched out away from the basket because it opens up driving and cutting lanes while forcing the other Bucks to consider leaving their own matchups to help. Not sure why anyone would expect the shortest guy on the floor to drive into lengthy help defenders with Lopez steaming towards the rim behind him, but here we are.
7 – Khris Middleton followed up a tremendous Game 4 with a brutal Game 4, going 2-of-9 from the field for eight points. He did add 10 rebounds and 10 assists, making his night more impactful than it might appear on the surface, but if the Raptors are going to continue doubling Antetokounmpo and shading extra bodies his direction, Middleton will need to make them pay. Now freed from the Leonard matchup, Middleton can’t come up empty offensively in Game 6. He had 24 possessions against Kyle Lowry in Game 5 and took two shots. Lowry’s a strong defender in size mismatches but that can’t happen.
8 – Game 5 was yet another fantastic performance from Lowry, who posted 17 points, seven rebounds, six assists, a steal and two triples. There’s also something karmic about the no-call in the final 30 seconds when he got basically run over by Middleton with the Bucks trying to foul, as there were a few instances earlier in the game where Lowry absorbed serious contact and wasn’t rewarded with a charge call. He takes a beating every night.
9 – Danny Green’s getting darn close to rock bottom, as he was limited to no points on three shots in only 16 minutes of action. Nick Nurse continues to roll with him in the starting lineup, as he should, but the willingness to keep the leash short is something that previous iterations of the Raptors never brought to the table. The fact that Nurse is going there, even after depth issues through the first two rounds, is worthy of acknowledgement.
10 – The Bucks played their obvious ace in the hole in Game 5, changing the starting lineup to get Malcolm Brogdon back into his normal spot. It seemed to jumpstart Bledsoe and Brogdon’s a more natural defensive fit against Toronto’s starters, but the Bucks’ offense continued to struggle when they weren’t getting out on the run. Milwaukee didn’t respond well to their first real adversity of the postseason, and now they’re in uncharted water while also facing elimination. The Bucks are going to need top-flight execution in Game 6 unless coach Bud has another drastic change up his sleeve.
June 26, 2019, 7:55 amKevin Durant - SF - Golden State Warriors
Appearing on ESPN last night, Adrian Wojnarowski said that the Nets plan to offer Kevin Durant, a four-year max contract.
Brooklyn is in a great position to offer Kyrie Irving a max contract and then use that to pursue KD or perhaps another free agent. Zach Lowe added that the idea of Kyrie as a solo doesn’t appear to be the plan but the Nets would ultimately take on Irving as a solo act, although there would probably be a divide within the organization. KD is expected to miss the majority of the next season but it looks like teams won’t have any second thoughts offering him the max.
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski
June 25, 2019, 8:11 pmBobby Portis - PF - Washington Wizards
Tony Jones and Fred Katz of The Athletic are reporting Bobby Portis is looking for as much as $16 million in free agency and has interest from multiple teams.
According to Jones and Katz, the Wizards aren't expected to match a huge offer sheet on Portis. As a restricted free agent, the Wiz declining to match would allow him to go elsewhere. The Utah Jazz have been a team at the top of the list on the rumor mill. Portis averaged 14.3 points and 8.6 rebounds in 28 games for the Wiz last season.
Source: Tony Jones on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 6:55 pmNikola Vucevic - C - Orlando Magic
Per Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News, the Mavs like how Nikola Vucevic fits alongside Kristaps Porzingis, but his expected salary would cost too much for the Mavs to sign.
The Mavs will enter free agency with a ton of cap space, but after the expected max contract that they'll extend to Porzingis, they may be more inclined to spread the wealth around or target Kemba Walker than committing a max contract to Vucevic. Vucevic had a career year as an All-Star for the Magic this past season, but his next destination remains a crapshoot.
Source: Dallas News
June 25, 2019, 6:38 pmJimmy Butler - SG - Philadelphia Sixers
Per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the Rockets' ideal plan in free agency is to get Jimmy Butler by a sign-and-trade deal with the Sixers.
Butler is going to be a sought after commodity once free agency opens as the Sixers, Lakers, and others are also going to be looking to ink him to a long-term deal. Butler regained his level back to max contract level after his play during the playoffs this season. The Rockets don't have any cap space to sign Butler outright, so they'll have to get a commitment from him to take a pay cut, while also getting the Sixers to agree to help facilitate a deal. This is going to be interesting.
June 25, 2019, 5:08 pmKhem Birch - C - Orlando Magic
The Magic have extended qualifying offers to C Khem Birch and F Amile Jefferson, rendering both restricted free agents ahead of free agency which is set to begin on June 30th.
Birch, who averaged 4.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in just 12.9 minutes per game this past season, is seemingly a priority for the Magic to bring back, and now they'll get the opportunity to match any contracts he may fetch from other teams. Jefferson was in the G-League for the majority of the season, where he was very productive. Both may take on larger roles, should they stay with the Magic, as star C Nikola Vucevic is an unrestricted free agent.
Source: Magic PR on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 4:58 pmJR Smith - SG - Cleveland Cavaliers
According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports, the Lakers could eventually take a look at signing J.R. Smith should he be released by the Cavs, or traded and bought out by another team.
Smith is likely to become a free agent one way or the other by the end of the month, and the Lakers will be looking at cheap floor-spacers to fill out their roster. Smith and LeBron James are familiar with one another after winning a championship together with the Cavs, and it looks like Smith to the Lakers is a real possibility.
Source: Chris Haynes on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 4:00 pmKristaps Porzingis - PF - Dallas Mavericks
Shams Charania of The Athletic is reporting that the Mavs will meet with restricted free agent Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL) once free agency opens on June 30th, and the team will offer him the full five-year, $158 million max contract.
This was expected ever since the Mavs traded for Porzingis mid-season while he recovered from his knee injury. Porzingis is fully expected to sign with the Mavs and become reigning ROY Luka Doncic's running mate for the foreseeable future.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 3:54 pmJordan Clarkson - PG - Cleveland Cavaliers
Cavs combo guard Jordan Clarkson changed agents and signed with Klutch Sports and Rich Paul.
Clarkson is likely to be a trade target for competitive teams ahead of next year's trade deadline, as a quality player on an expiring contract. Clarkson will enter free agency next offseason looking for the best deal possible.
Source: Joe Vardon on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 3:46 pmJulius Randle - PF - New Orleans Pelicans
Per Marc Spears of The Undefeated, Pelicans forward Julius Randle and the Knicks have mutual interest as free agency approaches.
The Pelicans drafted their PF of the future in Zion Williamson last week, and will seemingly let Randle walk in free agency as they are unlikely to pay him what he deserves. After a productive finish with the Lakers in 2017-18, Randle had to settle for a one-year deal from the Pelicans last summer. After another productive season on an expiring contract, it looks like at least one franchise is ready to invest in Randle as their PF of the future. Randle averaged 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 0.9 threes to boot this past season and makes for a good mid-round selection in drafts next season if he finds himself in a similar role.
Source: The Undefeated
June 25, 2019, 3:32 pmAndre Iguodala - SF - Golden State Warriors
Speaking about Kevin Durant's injury situation during this year's playoffs, Andre Iguodala said that he fractured his left leg against the Rockets in the 2018-19 playoffs and the Warriors listed him out with a "left lateral leg contusion.”
There has been a lot of smoke in regards to how the Warriors dealt with Durant's injury, as it did not appear to be as minor as the team led the public to believe when he injured himself backpedaling after a made basket. A non-contact injury is always a major red flag, but the Warriors called Durant's initial injury a "first-grade calf strain," which is the lowest graded injury designation. Weeks later, when Durant rushed back to help his team out of a 3-1 Finals deficit, he fully ruptured his Achilles in only 12 minutes of action. This is all just speculation, but this revelation from the 2015 NBA Finals MVP is an alarming development for a franchise who could seemingly do no wrong the past half-decade. The league may take a deep-dive into these claims soon enough.
Source: NBC Sports